2019 Reading Challenge

2019 Reading Challenge
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Book Review: Midnight in Peking (and a quick update)

I’m still not even remotely healthy, but fortunately had a book review on hand… FWU! (and that’s “phew!” for those of you who aren’t Step-Son, teehee) Enjoy – I don’t have anything more clever to say today, sorry. 🙁


Today we’re on the trail of a murder – a murder that paralleled, and emphasized, the downfall of a civilization.  My review copy of Midnight in Pekingwas provided courtesy of LuxuryReading.com, which also hosted the original (shorter) post of this book review on September 18, 2012 (available here).


Midnight in Peking

Picture it.  Peking, China, in the late 1903s: a world of glitz and glamour, of starkly contrasting poverty and extravagance, of madams and madmen, of opium dens and old men walking songbirds in cages.  It was a world trapped between the old and the new – floundering in colonialism and wedged between the history of regal dynasties and the bloody reality of civil (and not-so-civil) war.

Enter Pamela Werner.  And then exit her, almost as quickly.

Midnight in Peking is the story of the brutal murder of a young British ex-pat woman-girl (she was nineteen at the time of her death) living in Peking – a murder that was never officially solved.  As with all mysteries, there are layers to the story that are only teased out over time.  Those layers paint a picture of a complex, socially and culturally dichotomized world on the brink of change at the hands of Japanese invaders – and Communist Chinese.

The book opens with Pamela’s death and proceeds with the attempts by her father and a joint team of Peking and British authorities to determine whodunit and why.  The author, historian Paul French, appears to have left no stone unturned in his research.  He follows the winding trail of Pamela’s last day to its horrifying conclusion, discovering along the way that her father, E.T.C. Werner, had done much of his work for him.  Unfortunately, this work was largely ignored by Chinese and British authorities – despite Werner’s repeated efforts to bring it to their attention – and Werner would never see justice or resolution for his adoptive daughter’s murder.

The narrative flows smoothly.  The writing is crisp and the tale is well-told.  Pamela Werner was a more complicated girl than those around her knew; this complexity is teased out and presented via mini-revelations throughout the course of the story.  The characters around her – including those ultimately responsible for her death – are vividly painted, warts and all.

This is an officially unsolved murder.  No one was ever charged or forced to pay the piper for Pamela’s death.  There is a surprising amount of evidence that went unheeded, evidence that Paul French turns into a narrative describing the murder, and this is how he closes Pamela’s story.  I have to admit that this was the weakest part of the book for me.  Not because the writing isn’t good or the story isn’t well presented, but because it felt a little out of place in a non-fiction work of documented history.  There is no direct set-up explaining that this is the author’s interpretation of the evidence and the events.  Motives are ascribed, as are feelings – none of which can possibly be known for fact.  Granted, a number of things are presented as “perhaps” or in the alternative (maybe it was X person, maybe Y), so some of the story is presented as speculation.  But still, after the meticulous presentation of fact throughout most of the book, I found this a surprising way for the author to wrap things up.  Again, it wasn’t bad – I don’t fault his assumptions, didn’t find glaring inconsistencies.  From the evidentiary set-up, everything probably did go at least largely as he described.  But it was an unexpected part of the book for me, nevertheless.

I did not know much about this period of Chinese history, or about Peking in general, before reading.  I found French’s book an interesting and insightful snapshot of that world.  As with so much of life, the picture he painted was of an intricately interwoven web, layered with public and private personas and a lot of dark, well-kept, secrets.  It was a grim reminder that much of the surface elegance of the world is there to hide its seamy underbelly, that people are often not what they seem, and that all-too-often wicked deeds go unpunished.  But it was also a reminder that the truth will out, and that the perseverance of one man – be he father or researcher – can bring resolution, even if not justice.


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2 comments to Book Review: Midnight in Peking (and a quick update)

  • David Weldon

    I too, found the book to be a fascinating insight of Beijing past. And having lived in Beijing for over ten years, it brought alive, for me, a bygone era as i visited all the places that were mentioned in the book.However, I believe, the book relied heavily on a lot of sensationalism and romantic notions. This is true when mentioning the south-east Watch Tower at Dongbianmen known by some as the Fox Tower. This is the place where the body was presumably found? The wording here is very important: Near the Fox Tower. Pamela’s body was actually discovered on the inner side of the Tarter wall (inside the old Imperial city) about 10 to 15 minutes walk to the west of the Fox Tower.
    Actually, there were many other discrepancies in the book’s description of what really happened on that cold, January night back in 1937. And thus, presenting a readily more fictionalised(who done it ) murder novel, rather than offering the more truthful, cold and less romantic facts of what really took place all those years ago.

    • admin

      Thanks for your comment David and for the insight. I did not know anything about poor Pamela prior to the book, and thus didn’t realize this was a romanticized tale rather than a factual one. I don’t mind when authors take liberties – but that’s why we have fiction… 🙂 Still, it was an enjoyable tale even if not an entirely accurate one – as long as one understands and appreciates the distinction. Thanks again for taking the time to visit, read, and then clear that up! Hope to “see you” around here again!

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