You must listen to this beautiful rendition of
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is one of the most riveting non fiction stories I have read this year. Please note that I will be spoiling the ending, because I otherwise could not give an adequate review. This is a real life story about the murder of a young British girl in China.
The story takes place in 1937 and China and the world are balanced on the edge of a knife. Hitler is gathering his forces in Europe and Japan has already invaded China and encroaching ever closer to Peking (the author chooses to use the old names of Chinese cities and places. Therefore Beijing is Peking; Tiananmen Square is Chengtianmen and so on.) Pressure is on the old government and colonial Britain is about to find its place in history's past.
Just outside the Western quarter of Peking where the foreigners reside, is an edifice called the Fox Tower. I have recently read an anthology of Chinese ghost stories, so I appreciate the significance of the name. Foxes were once believed to be spirits or demons. They often were spirits of the dead and they would appear in human form to people in order to deceive, hurt or some times even fall in love with humans.
One morning a man walking his bird past the Fox Tower comes across a horrific sight. The mutilated body of a young woman is found lying in the gutter. Her face and body has been cut so severely that she is unrecognizable. Furthermore, her internal organs have been removed. Only by her clothes, though ripped in shreds, and a diamond watch she wears, her father is able to identify her.
Thus begins an investigation through Chinese and English channels that takes us into the dark underworld of a city on the edge of collapse.
French also gives us an excellent history of the different people who were living in Peking at the time and why. Many White Russian refugees fled there. Destitute, many of them set up brothels and bars. Others, from America, England, Italy, other Asian countries, people running away from their past, set up shop there as well.
But also highly respectable people. The murdered girl's father is an English scholar of Chinese culture and literature. Not only is he fluent in Mandarin, he speaks more dialects than his house hold staff. His daughter, Pamela, also speaks Mandarin fluently.
Detective Inspector Dennis and Detective Han piece together the history of Pamela and her father and the days before her disappearance and tragic reappearance to uncover who the criminals could be.
This is where I am going to spoil the story for you so do not continue if you plan on reading this book. Because this is a true story it does not end tidily like an Agatha Christie novel with Hercule Poirot congregating all the suspects and pointing out the guilty party.
Pamela's murderer or murderers go unpunished. The case goes cold and while there are several plausible theories as to what happened, no one this side of the Jordan will ever really know who committed this heinous crime and why.
Part of this reason, at least as the facts are presented by the author, is because the British Consulate was more concerned with saving British face than bringing possible western murderers to justice. Can't look bad to the local squabble, hip, hip.
The other reason, which the author shows, perhaps unintentionally, was, frankly, people had other problems, like the Japanese taking over. Pamela's father refused to leave until he found out who killed his daughter and ends up spending the war years in a POW camp.
So does the man that he believes is the murderer of his daughter. In fact, they stay inside the same prisoner camp for the duration of the war. French gives a good argument as to why this particular upstanding Western foreigner working in Peking with a "good" reputation, would be capable of such a crime and why he was never brought to justice.
Interestingly, both men survived their internment and returned to live in Peking.
I won't tell you who that man is or why there is good reason to consider him the guilty party, along with an insidious organization he belonged to. For that you'll have to read the book.
I will say this much. French's reconstruction of Pamela's final hours are entirely speculation and they don't satisfy questions I have as to why her body was mutilated in what looks to me like a Satanic or Occultic ritualistic way. Even if he is correct in his surmise of who did it and why they did it, he does not adequately explain why they cut her body up in such a strange and gruesome way.
Some of the reviews on Amazon claim the book was too slow or gave too much information. I disagree. It is one of the fastest paced, exciting and enthralling stories I've ever read, with the added boon of providing a good history of China, just prior to WWII and Mao Tse Tung's (archaic spelling on purpose) communist take over.
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