Midnight in Peking – a book discussion

November 4, 2012 at 10:02 pm (Book clubs, books, Crime)

  This past Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the (newly reinvigorated ) AAUW Readers. The selection for this session was Midnight in Peking by Paul French. I admit I was a bit uncertain as to how well this book would lend itself to the reading group discussion format. In the event, I need not have worried. Participants were eager to dive in with their observations and questions, most of which concerned aspects of the character of Pamela Werner, the young victim of a horrendous crime, and of her father ETC Werner.

The year was 1937, and Pamela Werner seems not to have thought of the way of life  she and her father shared as especially unusual. And yet it might seem so to contemporary readers. Her mother had died when Pamela was three years old. ETC Werner, a distinguished Sinologist already in his forties when she was born, seemed bookish and remote, leaving most of the child care duties to the household servants.

A fluent speaker of Mandarin, Pamela was a curious mixture of innocent schoolgirl and budding womanliness. Her existence in Peking was literally freewheeling: she navigated the streets and alley ways of the city on her bicycle, often alone, sometimes at night.

Author Paul French studied history, economics, and Mandarin language; in addition, he has an advanced degree in economics from the University of Glasgow. He is currently a business consultant and analyst in Shanghai. In the ‘Q and A’ section of the reading guide, French recounts how he first came upon the story of Pamela Werner while reading a biography of  American journalist Edgar Snow. Ultimately, his search  for information about Pamela’s murder led him to Britain’s National Archives in Kew:

I was looking through a box of jumbled up and unnumbered documents from the British Embassy in China in the 1940s when I found a 150 page or so long document sent to the Foreign Office by ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. These documents were the notes of a detailed private investigation he had conducted after the Japanese occupation of Peking until he was himself interned by the Japanese along with all other Allied foreigners after Pearl Harbor.

Those papers proved revelatory. This is the kind of find that every researcher dreams of.

Members of our group were much taken with Paul French’s  vivid depiction of old Peking, an exotic and mysterious city about to be overrun by the Japanese army. They wished they knew more about the history of the region, but the fact is that French preferred to focus with laser like intensity on the murder of Pamela Werner and its immediate aftermath. The result is a tightly wound narrative that grabs the reader by the lapels (do we still have lapels?) and never lets go. As a fact crime narrative, it reminded me of People Who Eat Darkness. That book is set in present day Tokyo and is quite a bit longer than Midnight in Peking. But the riveting storytelling and the pathos of the human drama are vividly bodied forth in both books.

The investigation of the murder of Pamela Werner was a simultaneous undertaking conducted by a Chinese policeman and Scotland Yard detective. This was a very unusual instance of the two forces collaborating in the work of solving a  crime. The trail of leads they followed was labyrinthine, and some provocative information was uncovered, especially as regarded the seedy underbelly of expatriate life in the city. Soon however the Japanese invaded, global war followed, and the search for Pamela Werner’s killer was lost in the chaotic currents of world events. In addition, the inquiry was subverted in several ways by people in powerful positions who did not want any ugly or incriminating truths to emerge.

And there matters might have rested permanently – except for the advent of a determined researcher decades later….

In the reading group guide, Paul French makes several suggestions  for further reading. Among these are the novels Rickshaw Boy by Lao She, Moment in Peking by Lin Yutang, and The Maker of Heavenly Trousers by Daniele Varé. Numbered among the nonfiction accounts are Ponies and Peonies by Harold Acton, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China by Davis Kidd, and City of Lingering Splendour:  A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures by Jon Blofeld.  (Click here for additional titles.)

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Midnight in Peking is an example of what is currently referred to in publishing parlance as historic true crime.  “Prior Misconduct,”  an article on this subgenre, appeared in a September issue of Library Journal. The author of the piece named several titles that I’ve very much enjoyed in the past several years:

  .  The question arises as to where in a bookstore (or on library shelves) titles such as these belong: history or crime?  In actuality they partake of both classifications, and that’s one of the things that makes them so uniquely fascinating.  I admit t hat I thought of Destiny of the Republic, Candace Millard’s superb biography of President James A. Garfield, as primarily a work of history, and yet it recently won the Edgar Award for ‘Best Fact Crime.‘ (Actually I think that book should win an award for being the best everything – it was simply terrific!) There is one other title not mentioned in the Library Journal that I (and a number of other reviewers) thought was exceptionally well done: The Fall of the House of Walworth, by Geoffrey O’Brien.

Toward the end of our discussion, I mentioned how much I’ve been enjoying my return to  the classics. It’s something I’d promised myself I’d do when I retired, and it is proving to be an extremely rewarding experience. Since being reconstituted, AAUW’s book group has discussed two classics: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather and The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. Lorraine inquired as to whether I could come up with any other titles other titles of that ilk for the group. So glad you asked, Lorraine! Keeping in mind the issues of length and readability, here  are some suggestions, for starters:

Washington Square and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy
Une Vie ( A Life) and Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (really just about anything by Jane Austen!)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (These two were suggested by Doris, and I heartily concur .)

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This delightful and articulate group of book lovers seemed to agree that Midnight in Peking was a great read and an excellent choice for discussion. Since I was the one who proposed it, I was most gratified by this outcome!

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1 Comment

  1. werner contributer said,

    Your group may find the site below of interest. It has a lot of archive material about the case. http://www.pamelawernermurderpeking.com

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