Sunday, October 13, 2019

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

This will be my last post for the month of October.  Josh and I are flying to Israel tomorrow morning and won't be back until November 1.  I promise lots of photos, however.

You must listen to this beautiful rendition of 

Scriabin: 24 Preludes, Op.11 (Lettberg, Stanev)

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: 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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Postcard of west Texas I sent.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Clockmaker by Georges Simenon

I'm not a huge Jazz fan, but I do like Bill Evans' solo work.  I find it meditative and poignant.  Here he is playing Alone.

The ClockmakerThe Clockmaker by Georges Simenon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A Clockmaker, Dave Galloway, has a simple life, stuck to its routine. He works in his shop, fixing watches, goes to his apartment, which is above his shop, has dinner, once a week goes to see his friend, Musak, and plays backgammon with him or watches the game.

Dave has a son, Ben, whom he loves and cares about, almost to the point of hovering. He feels protective and yearns to be closer to him. Both he and his son were deserted by Ben's mother when Ben was a baby. Dave has done his best to be both mother and father to his son.

Dave recalls his son as he grew up. In grade school, he was bullied, in secondary school, he becomes increasingly distant to his father. Dave finds this troubling but he feels helpless to do anything.

One night he comes home to discover that Ben has run off with the girl next door. She's fifteen and Ben is sixteen. They have taken Dave's car and stolen thirty dollars from the girl's mother.

Again, Dave feels helpless. Why should he call the police? If they want to marry, let them marry.

If it were only so simple. Coming home from work the next day, Dave is met by police. His car has been deserted by the side of the road, another car has been stolen and the owner murdered and left on the side of the road.

We see the story transpiring through the eyes of Dave and he is not an interesting narrator. He is about as clueless a person as can exist. We learn why he married Ben's mother (he doesn't know) and we hear him pondering as to why his son might have become a killer. He has no idea, but most of the book is Dave trying to put the fragments of his life together to try and make sense as how he and his son arrived at this place and time.

Dave seems too numb to feel anything. But he rather seemed like that before.

When his son is finally apprehended Dave flies out to see him. With interest, but without emotion, Dave notices that his son and his now wife, are not ashamed or exhibit any remorse. If anything, Ben acts proud of his "accomplishment". He admits his guilt and sees no reason to deny it.

When Ben sees his father in the crowd, he shows contempt and refuses to talk with him. Even when they fly on the same plane back home, Ben with his wife, surrounded by police officers, Dave in another seat in the back, Ben never looks at or acknowledges his dad.

This bewilders Dave. He doesn't understand how his son could be so arrogant.

The story concludes with Dave deciding that it was about rebelling against forces that overpower a person.

His mother was domineering and pushed his father around. His father was a timid man who spent his life going from bank to bank to get loans to make a living. He dropped dead at a bank while waiting to see someone about a loan.

Once, his father had an affair. His one time rebellion against his wife, Dave's mother. In his turn, Dave married a woman he knew was immoral and would never be faithful. He knew she would eventually desert him, which she did and their baby, Ben. Neither of them ever saw her again. But to him, it was his rebellion. Now his son.

He murdered a man. That was his rebellion.

To take something so philosophically and stoically does not make sense. I get the feeling that Simenon, while nodding to the need for law enforcement, really sees nothing wrong with murder anymore than he considers adultery wrong. It's simply a route some people take.

His attitude reflects the nihilistic, existentialist culture that had risen out of the writings of Camus and Sartre. I suppose he was simply going with the popular flow.

The problem is that, while that angle makes sense in Simenon's novels that take place in France, it seems unnatural in an American setting.

The Clockmaker takes place in New York and a few midwestern states. I had to keep reminding me that the characters were American, because Simenon's writing is so entrenched in his French nationality, I had a hard time not imagining Dave standing around, lighting a cigarette and shrugging philosophically at the strange workings of fate, but, c'est la vie.

The only slice of light in the whole novel is when Dave's friend Musak rises to the occasion and rescues his friend from complete spiritual catatonia by making him supper and breakfast, making him go to sleep, waking him up and driving him to the airport to see his son.

I have to conclude the Georges Simenon wrote of something he had no personal experience with. The entire story comes across as theoretical, as though he had an idea about a father and son, what if the son turns out to be a murderer? How would the father react? It comes across as guesswork.

And Simenon guessed wrong.

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