Midnight in Peking

I have read several nonfiction books recently and they really intrigued me into checking this genre out more. That is why I wanted to check out Midnight in Peking. I thought the unsolved murder of a young Pamela Werner sounded intriguing. I was not the only one as Mr. French was also intrigued by Pamela’s story and felt that he wanted to research her story himself and see if he could once again give Pamela a voice.

Pamela was the daughter of E.T.C. Werner, a former British consul at Foochow. Back in 1937, Pamela’s body was found lying on the ground near the Fox Tower outside the Legation Quarter. Pamela was almost unrecognizable due to all the stab wounds. In addition, her abdomen was spilt open with her heart and other organs removed and her clothing ripped to shreds. British Chief Detective Dennis and Chinese Detective Han work to try and solve the murder of Pamela. Unfortunately, Pamela’s body is laid to rest and her case is closed.

While, I did find Pamela’s murder interesting, especially how another country handles their protocol for solving murders. I must admit that I did struggle to get through this book. I started it and than had to put it down and read something else before going back to it. This book kind of felt like a non/fiction book versus just a non fiction book. What with the fox spirits and such that this culture believes in. Also, it felt like it was really important to inform the reader about China and the detectives and their lives. Not a lot was shared about Pamela. Her story was intertwined in bits and pieces through out this book.


Q: When and where did you first discover Pamela, and what was it that piqued your interest in her story?

A. I was reading a rather dry and academic biography of the famous American journalist Edgar Snow who became well known in China in the 1930s. A small footnote stated that his neighbour had been Pamela Werner, a young English woman murdered in 1937 and whose killing was never solved. The footnote mentioned that Edgar’s wife Helen thought she might have been the real target of the killer and that Pamela’s father was a suspect as well as a notorious ‘sex cult’ run by a rather ragtag group dubious foreigners in Peking. That all rather grabbed my attention!! I went to sleep and in the morning Pamela was front and centre in my mind and I decided she was worth looking into – she’s stayed lodged in my brain ever since.

Pamela’s murder was brutal, it led to waves of panic spreading through both foreign and Chinese Peking at the time. The whole city, and actually the whole of China, followed the investigation in the newspapers while armchair detectives all offered their own theories. Yet within six months of Pamela’s murder China was plunged into a horrific war for its very survival – Beijing and Tianjin were under Japanese occupation, Shanghai was being bombed by Japanese planes and the horrific Rape of Nanjing occurred.

Q: Why is the story of Pamela’s murder significant?

A: Pamela was one murder that seemed to presage even greater horrors for everyone in China. In 1937 her killing, when everyone really knew things were about to get a lot worse for them all, really coalesced the terror that Chinese civilisation was about to be overrun by the forces of barbarism. Stalin (who would have known!!) said “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”…I felt that even back then, on the eve of World War Two, and now, Pamela felt to people like that one tragedy.

Q: Did you know who the murderer was when you started to write? How sure are you that you have got the right person?
A: When I started I had no idea who the murderer was, I only had suspects. They were all intriguing – her elderly and curmudgeonly father, her headmaster, one of any number of white ‘driftwood’ that lived nearby Pamela’s Peking home and hung out in the Badlands area among the brothels, dive-bars and opium dens…a fairly intriguing cast.

However, once I found Werner’s private investigation and began cross-referencing what he had discovered with what the official police investigation of Colonel Han and DCI Dennis had found out I became convinced that ETC Werner had got to the dark heart of the matter.

I was convinced Werner was right and so I wanted to tell his story – I hope people read the book and ask questions for themselves. I hope the arguments in the book are persuasive enough and backed up with evidence and facts. We’ve also created a great website with more background documents, evidence, contemporary newspaper articles and pictures of all the major characters and locations to add to what is in the book.

Q: What were the social and cultural divisions in Peking in the 1930s? The British had their own safe haven in the Legation Quarter, were there other sets of rules for the White Russians, and the Chinese themselves?

A: I think when most people think of China in the 1930s they think of Shanghai – jazz, gangsters, beautiful White Russian dancers, Chinese ladies in Cheongsam, art-deco nightclubs etc. But Peking was different – Peking was not a treaty port under foreign control like Shanghai; it was all Chinese territory and it was an ancient city, a dark city. It was also a city that had fallen behind – Shanghai was the most modern city in Asia, Nanjing was the Chinese capital; Peking had become a bit of a backwater. Peking was also very nervous – it bordered onto Manchuria and northern China where the Japanese had been in occupation since 1932 – they knew they were next! Many of the Chinese were, at the higher level, scholars or former imperial bureaucrats who had served the old Qing Dynasty – again, an older, more traditional China than Shanghai. At the lower end, the Chinese population was swollen by penniless and desperate migrants from Japanese-occupied Manchuria. It was a combustible situation with a weak local government.

The foreigners were also very divided. At the top were the former diplomats and the old China Hands with money, privilege and their ‘gilded cage’ of the Legation Quarter that looked and felt like Europe but was surrounded by China. Outside the quarter lay the “Badlands” and the Tartar City where another class of Europeans lived made up of, largely poor and destitute, White Russian exiles, a more recent group of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany and quite a few white ‘driftwood’, foreigners who had reached the end of the line and fell into opium addiction, drug dealing, prostitution, begging, gun running or acting as mercenaries.

This latter group of foreign ‘driftwood’ has been little talked about by historians traditionally as they leave fewer traces or memoirs. Their stories are much harder to uncover. However, Pamela’s murder represented a point when the smart and privileged world of the Legation Quarter met the dark underworld of the Badlands and shed a rather revealing light on the equally scandalous goings on in both communities.

Q: Having lived in Shanghai for a number of years, how would you describe your relationship with China and how did you negotiate writing a book that is so entwined with the city of Beijing (over Shanghai)?

A: Shanghai is a fascinating city for many, many reasons. I’ve written about the city in the past and intend to do so again in the future. However, Beijing has its own attractions. In the historical period that interests me – the interwar period - Shanghai was a foreign administered treaty port and both the International Settlement and Frenchtown were wide open places where refugees didn’t need papers, gangsters ran amok, China’s fractious politics collided in bloodshed and a hell of a lot of partying went on right up to the end. But Peking was different – Peking was a city concerned with appearances, a city that tried to smother scandal rather than reveling in it as Shanghai did. Shanghai lifted its skirt and flashed the goods to passersby; Peking was all fur coat and no knickers!! Peking was a city that always protected tradition, be it the foreign Legations or Chinese customs and manners from a previous era, while Shanghai embraced the modern with gusto…cinema, cars, radio, jazz, machine guns, heroin, fashion. Shanghai was all show, Peking all surface and so getting under that veneer of proprietary to the scandals that lay beneath and the resentments and crimes that festered was challenging. It’s also the case that Shanghai history in the 1920s and 1930s is quite well known. I think people have a picture in their head when you mention Shanghai 1937 – women in cheongsams and men in dinner jackets dancing to jazz on a balcony overlooking the Bund! Peking 1937 is much less well worn territory and therefore a challenge.

Q: What is the most surprising thing about Pamela’s story?

A: For me the most surprising aspect of the story was how my attitude to some of the characters changed over time. This was particularly true of Pamela’s father, ETC Werner. By all accounts most people who knew him agreed that he was aloof, somewhat snobbish, did not suffer fools gladly and had a quick temper. He was a man many admired but few appear to have liked. I felt that way about him too at first. But when I began to read his own notes of his private investigation into Pamela’s murder closely I suddenly heard the voice of a loving father in intense personal pain over the sudden and horrible loss of his daughter. He was a man of his times – outwardly cold and detached, very stiff upper lip and all that…but inside he clearly loved Pamela very deeply and went to extraordinary lengths at great personal risk as well as spending his life’s savings and ruining his health to try and find her killers.

There’s also no point in denying that over the years it took to research this book I developed a rather deep obsession with Pamela herself. I wanted desperately to know her better, to sense what the last days of her life were like, to understand her. At times I felt extremely sad that she had not lived to become a happy, yet anonymous, grandmother somewhere with a stack of tall tales of life in Peking to tell her grandchildren. I was surprised at myself for how deeply that affected me emotionally and how determined that made me to finish the book and do the best job I possibly could, for Pamela, so that her life was not lived in vain and so that people would remember her. That seemed, and still does seem, very important to me somehow.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

For me crime stories – real or fictional – are ultimately all about character, period and location. When I read crime fiction I almost immediately forget what the motive for the murder was, or which clue it was that led the detective to the killer. What I do remember are the characters, the places, the historical ambience. Crime writing does that better than any other sort of literature I think. So I hope that I’ve done a good enough job of writing to allow readers to immerse themselves in a time and place that did exist - 1937 Peking. I hope that the locations – the Legation Quarter, the hutongs, the Badlands – will come alive and that with them so too the characters may start to feel three dimensional and real. If I’ve achieved that then my ultimate aim – to remember Pamela, might just be realized. In January 1937 a horrific crime was committed and nobody was ever brought to justice for it. That throws our sense of right and wrong off balance, forces our world out of harmony. I think it’s important, even 75 years later, that we remember. In the remembering, in the not forgetting someone whose life was stolen, is a form of justice, a rebalancing, a return to some sort of harmony. In a sense, through my book, perhaps Pamela lives again in our collective memory. I hope so, she deserves to.

Q: Tell us a bit about your research for MIDNIGHT IN PEKING; what documents did you find, who did you speak to and where did you travel to during the process?

A: I started out by going to the archives in Shanghai and Hong Kong and reading all the newspaper reports from the time about Pamela’s murder. The story was front-page news for what used to be known as the China Coast press, English language newspapers in Shanghai, Tientsin (Tianjin) and Peking. Very early I saw a picture of Pamela taken just before she died when she clearly believed she had her whole life before her. One glance at that picture in the archives and I knew I was going to write a book about her murder. From there I looked up all the available records I could find and delved into the background of the characters involved.

I was most intrigued by Pamela’s father, a former British Consul in China and a noted but somewhat tetchy Sinologist as well as the investigative partnership between Colonel Han, the top detective on the Peking Police Force and DCI Dick Dennis, an ex-Scotland Yard policeman who happened to be stationed in the nearby British Concession at Tientsin. That part of the story was too good to make up!

But my real breakthrough, my ‘eureka moment’, came in the UK’s National Archives at Kew in London. 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 detailed notes of a 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. It was a fascinating document with a lot of new evidence as well as an impassioned plea by a distraught father for his daughter’s murder case to be reopened. However, his investigation fell on deaf ears – the British establishment in China had decided that Werner and his daughter’s killing were an embarrassing loss of face for Britain in the Far East while in London the Blitz was at its height and the war in Europe consumed everyone’s attention. Pamela, and her father’s investigation, were forgotten…until the day I turned up and asked for the files to be retrieved from Kew’s voluminous stacks.

Q: The characters in Midnight in Peking all existed in real life, do you feel as though you have portrayed them accurately? How did you go about bringing them to life without allowing them to become fictional?

A: If you want to know how easy it is to write literary fiction then try writing literary non-fiction!! Fiction writers are absolute dictators who are able to order their characters to do whatever they like. I was faced with characters who had messy lives, whose motives were not always obvious and who made mistakes and didn’t leave nice detailed diaries. Just as in real life, my characters lived messy unfinished lives while fictional characters can be tidied up, their every act explained, their reasonings divined – because it’s all just make believe. And you can’t tidy up after them the way fiction writers get to. You’re stuck with your characters, warts and all, loose ends included.

On the other hand at times the truth can certainly be stranger than fiction and actions and motivations that would appear too staged or contrived can sometimes be what actually happened.

In MIDNIGHT IN PEKING no characters actions or words are invented, no locations are made up, the timeline is real and only what is known for sure is included- there are no suppositions, perhaps or maybes. That’s why I insisted on footnoting the book so that if readers felt I had strayed from the actual events into fiction they could refer to the notes and see the original source of the characters words, actions or motivations.
Of course when dealing with real people, people who are long dead, it is frustrating. I talked to as many people as possible, I found as many pictures of them as possible, letters they wrote, interviews they gave, postcards they sent, diaries and notes they kept. However, it is hard to get people in their former living and breathing entirety – what they smelt like, their accents, their particular mannerisms and twitches that made them unique individuals. That is something I find frustrating. For instance a couple of people told me, and several others wrote, that Pamela’s rare grey eyes were quite entrancing, they were hard to look away from and were something very unique and special about her. But sadly none of the black and white photos of her are quite capable of capturing this feature that anyone who knew her saw and instantly recalled.


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