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

 The eastern section of old Peking has been dominated since the fifteenth century by a looming watchtower, built as part of the Tartar Wall to protect the city from invaders.  Known as the Fox Tower, it was believed to be haunted by fox spirits, a superstition that meant the place was deserted at night.

So begins this compelling book.  It has all the components of a first-rate murder mystery:  an eccentric, distant father with an interesting past, a seedy underworld, hints of scandal among the upper classes, corrupt officials, plus a skilled and determined detective.   All of this painted against a backdrop of Peking hovering on the brink of war.

On the morning of January 7, 1937, the body of an English schoolgirl is found near the base of the Fox Tower.  To the horror of the policemen, the girl had been savagely mutilated; her chest cut open and her internal organs removed.  Peking is already in turmoil, filled with refugees from Russia and peasants from the countryside.  The Japanese army is surrounding the city.  Only the residents of the gated Legation Quarter seem unaffected.  These privileged foreigners, mostly Europeans and Americans, seek to maintain face at all costs. 

The murdered girl was identified as Pamela Werner, daughter of E.T.C. Werner a respected scholar who had lived and worked in China since the 1800’s.  The Chinese police department, knowing that the British legation required an envoy to monitor the investigation, called in DCI Dennis from the British Concession in Tientsin. He was experienced and had trained at Scotland Yard.  But Dennis was hampered from the beginning with restrictions imposed by his superiors, all in the interest of saving face.

Paul French spent seven years meticulously researching this true story, unearthing long lost files and visiting locales in China involved in the case.  The rich details faithfully recreate old Peking, the lives of the people involved, and the investigation following the murder to make this a compelling read.  Highly recommended.

NetGalley Review  Publication date 4.24.12

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