A story from behind the statistics – Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, by Paul French

In 1937 the body of a young western woman, Pamela Werner, was found brutally murdered in Peking. An investigation was launched by Chinese police with British support but the murderer was never arrested and the crime was soon forgotten in the midst of the cataclysm of the second world war that engulfed China and the world thereafter.

Paul French, the author of this book, in the course of researching the case found that after the police investigation wound up, having been obstructed throughout by a combination of bureaucratic corruption, racism, sexual hypocrisy and imperial pretensions, Pamela’s father conducted his own enquiries. These uncovered significant new evidence including, almost certainly, the identity of the murderer and the circumstances of Pamela’s death. The resulting book is a gripping non-fiction procedural which gives fascinating insight into Peking, and particularly its foreign community and foreign underclass of white Russian emigres and multinational adventurers and criminals, in the last days before the Japanese take-over.

Pamela’s death was, of course, just one of millions that would occur between the invasion of Manchuria and the bombing of Nagasaki. But the author is right to single it out: in focusing on the life and horrific death of one fiesty young woman we are reminded that her story is a dreadfully ordinary one and representative of tens of thousands of others who in peacetime fall victim the way Pamela did.

To say more would be to give too much away. Suffice to say that Paul French has produced a fine narrative of a single criminal case of the sort that remains horrifically commonplace over 70 years since Pamela’s awful death on a cold Peking night.

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