Journalist and author Paul French is one of the most knowledgeable person about Shanghai. Although he now has gone back to the UK, he spent years in the city commenting about both the old and modern side of it. He is the author of The Old Shanghai A to Z (See link to my post on the book), the definitive guide about street names in Old Shanghai. It was then surprising to read a book from him about Beijing. Unsurprisingly though, Midnight in Peking tells a story that happened in Beijing in 1937, in the foreign legation or it surroundings. The atmosphere of old colonial China is very much the background of the story, very similar to the atmosphere in Shanghai at the same time.
The book is focused on the horrible murder of 19 years old Pamela Werner. Her body was found on 8th January 1937, as the bottom of the fox tower, Dongbianmen today. Daughter of a former British diplomat that was one of the best sinologist at the time, her death was the center of the media attention for a while. Unfortunately, international politics and Japanese troops surrounding the city did not help to solve the case. It is also clear that although some effort was made to find the murderer, a lot of energy was spent by well placed people to make sure that the guilty ones were never to answer their crimes.
As in previous books, French had a lot of research into the matter, including archives from the UK diplomatic services as well as other countries. The original inquiry was made by DCI Dennis, the chief of the Tianjin Municipal police, and inspector Han from the Beijing police. Nobody, apart from them and the victim’s father, had any interest in the police finding the murderer. The whole British diplomatic circle was focusing on protecting the honor of Britain and its privileges, be it by protecting the worst of its citizen. As the inquiry starts to raise questions, they are moved away to make sure they don’t find anything. It becomes obvious that the local little clique wants nothing of its secrets revealed, some of them really being horrible.
The book is also a dive in the badlands of Beijing, a territory next to the foreign legations that was controlled by nobody, where about anything was going on. Prostitution, gambling, drugs, human abuse and worse, all of it was flourishing at a time when nobody was sure of anything about the future. Japanese armies were coming and some people were left alone, satisfying their vices in the most sordid ways. It is also a place where the top and the scum of the foreign community mixed together. Every city has a dark side, but Beijing badlands were darker than most.
Midnight in Peking is the tale of a period, that was the end of a world. Atmosphere was surely very similar in the Shanghai badlands, after Japanese invasion a few months later. The book takes us straight to it, just like a crime novel and also helps solving one of the great murders of Old China. A great read for Old Shanghai fans.