Monday, April 23, 2012

Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Hardcover, 272 pages
Expected publication: April 24th 2012 by Penguin (Non-Classics)
ISBN: 0143121006 (ISBN13: 9780143121008)
From the publisher:
In the last days of old Peking, where anything goes, can a murderer escape justice?Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner's body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?

Historian and China expert Paul French at last uncovers the truth behind this notorious murder, and offers a rare glimpse of the last days of colonial Peking.
My thoughts: Based on a true story from 1937, Paul French relates the details of the investigation into the murder of Pamela Werner, a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. This type of third person narration with no dialogue occasionally makes for dry reading. The salvation to this book is the mystery of the murder and the incredible twists and turns it takes along the way. I found the setting and the timeframe to be fascinating.

The timeframe is important because there were so many political issues going on in China; Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Nationalists and Mao Tse-Tung,leader of the communists were battling it out for control. Throw in the fact of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and impending takeover of Peking, needless to say, tensions were running high. China was on the cusp of massive changes and the brutal murder of one young woman outside the British Legation only added to the fears. The author did a terrific job with sense of place, putting the reader in the scene, while giving a good historical background of what was going on at the time.  That's one part of the book I really enjoyed.

The two investigators, British investigator Dennis and Chinese detective Han,  were both hampered by their superiors and limited in what, where and who they could investigate. It was almost doomed to fail. It's as if even the top echelons did not want this case solved.  Almost everyone the two detectives talked to either lied, were bribed, relocated or were just covering up to save their own skins. It didn't help that a lot of the people involved were from the dregs of society and were unreliable or that they were from a privileged set and others protected them.

Pamela's father tried for years with all his might and resources to lead them in the right direction but he was rebuffed at every turn. No one was willing to re-open the case. Even until after the war, he was still trying to get justice for his beloved daughter.  Such a sad turn of events.

The end of the book lists the author's extensive sources and how he came to write the book in the first place. The mystery fascinated him and he couldn't let it go without doing his own investigation. It goes without saying, Mr. French did a tremendous amount of research into this case.  3***

One caveat: if you are somewhat squeamish, the autopsy details should just be skipped over.

Disclosure: A review copy of the book was provided by Penguin in exchange for my honest opinion.



  1. I've got this book and am going to try to get to it in the next few weeks. Sounds really good and even though I don't usually read much non-fiction, I'm excited about it. I've been reading other books set in WWII times or just before and this will provide a look at the other side of the world during that time period.

  2. Sounds interesting but I'm one of the squeamish :)

  3. I like that it's based on a true event. I am squeamish but can read details I could never listen to or watch.

  4. Not sure I could handle the autopsy details:0 (although the story itself sounds darn fascinating)

  5. That does sound pretty intense and I love to read/watch about old mysteries that to this day have never been solved!!!

  6. Not sure I would like this one based on the dryness of some of the narrative, but since you seemed to enjoy it, I might have to give it try! Very interesting that the case has never been solved.

  7. This does sound like an interesting book, but the dry narrative is a turn off. Great review!

  8. It sounds almost like he figured out what happened to her. Is that true or did he just have a theory?

  9. I just put this book on my wishlist thanks to you. I can't wait to read it for myself now.


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