Midnight in Peking Cover showing the Fox Tower

Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old ChinaMidnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend who lives in Beijing recommended this book to me on the occasion of my visit there. I like to read about places that I plan to visit, so I picked it up eagerly. The atmosphere of pre-war Peking is vividly drawn, the author’s attention to detail is exhaustive, and I found myself caring about Pamela’s fate and wanting to know what happened next. Unlike some other reviewers, however, I found the writing style and pacing to be rough going. The events unfolded in repetitive fashion and since we knew from the get-go that the case remained unsolved, there wasn’t much suspense. The lack of a clear protagonist or viewpoint character added distance, compounding the distance already afforded by time and space. 

Parallels beg to be made between the story of Pamela Werner, a complex young girl–both beautiful and dark–who was brutally murdered, and the city of Peking itself with its residents brutalized under wartime occupation. I felt that most opportunities to draw such parallels were missed, although perhaps they were just too subtle for me and my scant knowledge of the history of the period.

In general I thought that the author assumed more historical knowledge than most of his readers are likely to possess. Certain descriptors were repeated so often that they became monotonous, but given little context or explanation. For example, I had to google the term “White Russian.” The entire first page of hits for this term was about a cocktail. Its wikipedia entry is a bit more helpful, but even that claims that the term can refer to one of four different possible groups of people, including members of the “White” movement during the Russian Civil War, ethnically “white” emigres fleeing the Russian Civil War, people from Belarus, or a religious group also called Old Believers. I suspect the author meant the first of those four, but it should have been clearer and made more of a difference. I was also brought up short by the many repeated references to “DCI Dennis” and “ETC Werner.” I would have preferred that these men were referred to by their given names.

While I understand the objections to the evidence collected by Pamela’s father in a study that purports to be objective, I don’t think those concerns matter for the purposes of telling an entertaining story and giving Pamela her small measure of justice. The author admits to being himself convinced by Werner’s evidence; he might as well go all in and not hedge. So, in my opinion, the author should have told the story from Edward Werner’s point of view, and started the narrative from the point where the police gave up on the investigation and Werner picked it up on his own. The false starts and trails gone cold followed by the police could be told in interspersed flashbacks as Werner works the case, confronts the alleged killer in prison, and eventually returns to his home, defeated but in another way unbowed.

The Fox Tower, where Pamela’s body is found, is believed in Peking folklore to be the home of the King of the Fox Spirits. The legend held that on a nocturnal visit to a cemetery, a fox would exhume a deceased body and then balance a skull upon its head. It then bowed reverentially to the God of the North Star. If the skull did not topple from the fox’s head, the fox would be transformed into a spirit who would live for eight to ten centuries.

I enjoyed the stories about the Fox Spirits so much that I plan to visit the tower when I visit Beijing. The book’s website has an interesting and very readable article about the tower, which warns visitors that if you let a Beijing taxi driver know that you want to go to the Fox Tower and “you will be met with a blank look and perhaps a gruff shenme difang’r delivered as a tu hua challenge.” http://us.midnightinpeking.com/pdf/th…

This is just the kind of thing the book itself needed more of.

View all my reviews

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