Midnight in Peking: Has Paul French Solved a 75-Year-Old Murder?

  • Share
  • Read Later

On a frigid winter morning in 1937, an old man walking near the Fox Tower of Peking’s crumbling city wall discovered the body of Pamela Werner, a 19-year-old English student. She had been bludgeoned and repeatedly stabbed, her heart and other organs removed and her body drained of blood. An expensive platinum and diamond watch was still on her wrist, discounting robbery as a motive. The crime shocked the city’s Chinese and foreign residents, and newspapers worldwide carried details of the grisly murder. The investigation, headed by an unusual pairing of a local Chinese police colonel with a Scotland Yard veteran, foundered. China was soon consumed by a full-scale Japanese invasion, and the brutal killing of one innocent was but a precursor to the deaths of many more.

In the years that followed Pamela’s case dropped from the headlines, replaced by stories of carnage that spread across Europe and Asia. She was reduced quite literally to a historical footnote, one that author Paul French came across while reading a biography of American journalist Edgar Snow, whose 1937 book Red Star Over China offered one of the first in-depth profiles of Communist leader Mao Zedong. Snow and his wife Helen were neighbors of the Werner family in Peking, and she feared that Kuomintang agents intent on silencing her and her husband had killed Pamela in a case of mistaken identity. Other possible suspects included Pamela’s father, an antisocial retired British diplomat turned China scholar, and a mysterious sex cult organized by foreign men in Peking.

(LIST: All-TIME 100 Novels)

French, a business consultant whose previous books have covered historic Shanghai, North Korea and foreign journalists in China, was intrigued and began investigating the case. His book on Pamela, Midnight in Peking, is a fascinating tale of life and death in a city on the brink of all-out war, a world of corruption, hubris, brutality and madness. He paints a vivid picture of life in the Legation Quarter, the extraterritorial enclave where the city’s foreign residents lived under their own laws, and the luxurious clubs and hotel bars where they traded gossip between dances and whiskey sodas. Despite the rampant destruction of the old Peking, some of the city French describes survives today, including the Fox Tower, one of the last remaining sections of the city wall, and Armour Factory Alley, where Pamela lived with her father in a refurbished courtyard home. But much has been erased, including the Badlands, a district of dive bars and brothels carefully scrubbed from the maps of that era. French helps bring the Badlands back to life, full of gangsters and drunken soldiers, White Russian prostitutes and foreign criminals seeking to disappear without a trace.

It was there that investigators searched for clues into Pamela’s death. A student on leave from boarding school in the nearby city of Tianjin, Pamela would have ridden bicycle past the notorious district on her way home from an afternoon of ice skating. “I’ve been alone all my life,” she told her friends before pedaling home in the dark. “I am afraid of nothing—nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world.” The investigators came tantalizingly close to solving her murder, but were stymied by British officials seemingly more intent on protecting foreign prestige and by a lead Chinese investigator who may have been acting duplicitously.

(MORE: The Top 10 Novels of the 2000s)

With the case unsolved, Pamela’s father pursued the killers himself. A retired British consul in his 70s, he had spent much of his career in remote and lonely outposts in China. He had cultivated a rich understanding of the country, but shunned his fellow expatriates and had an awkward relationship with the foreign community in Peking. He had raised Pamela, an adopted daughter of Russian refugees, on his own after his wife had died of drug overdose. Devastated by the loss of his daughter, he depleted his savings hiring detectives to help him crack the case. “Werner dedicated five years to the task,” French writes, “and what he uncovered was ultimately far worse, far more evil, than anything Peking’s numerous armchair detectives could have imagined.”

Sadly, Werner’s investigation was ignored, dismissed by the British Foreign Office as an attack on the work of its diplomats. French stumbled across a 150-page report of his results in Britain’s National Archive while searching through boxes of uncategorized correspondence sent from Peking during World War II. The resulting work is a deeply engrossing tale that offers fresh insights into pre-war Peking and a measure of justice for a young woman whose life was cut tragically short.