Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Penguin Books)

The new year of 1937 had barely begun when an old man, walking near one of Peking’s ancient walls early in the morning, came across the body of a dead girl. Her face had been slashed with a knife, her legs were sliced, and her sternum had been cut open with all of her ribs broken; her heart, liver, bladder and one of her kidneys had been removed. Her body had been savaged by the stray dogs that roamed the city and the only clue as to who she may have been was a blood-soaked membership card for the ice-skating rink at the French Club. Her hair was blonde and on her wrist was a platinum watch that was set in diamonds. Clearly this bizarre murder had not been prompted by robbery.

As the police made a preliminary examination of the corpse and the crime scene, an elderly man made his way to the body, screamed “Pamela” and fell to the ground. E.T. C. Werner, a scholar and former British consul, had lived in China since the 1880s. The night before, his only child had failed to return home and he had wandered the neighborhoods searching for her. When he found her at last, she was in the realm of every parent’s worst nightmare.

Peking was a city that was already gripped in fear before Pamela Werner was murdered. The Japanese had conquered Manchuria six years earlier and now they were advancing upon China’s third-richest city, with troops encamped only miles away. Most of Peking’s two thousand foreign residents were sheltered within the eight heavily guarded iron gates of the city’s Legation Quarter, a spot that was “Europe in miniature.” Terrified by the rumors that Chiang Kai-shek would relinquish northern China in hopes of retaining the south, Westerners were leaving for home—but not the widowed Edward Werner and his daughter.

The two of them lived outside of the protective gates of the Legation Quarter in a luxurious courtyard house, and both took pleasure in roaming the city. Pamela, born in China and fluent in Mandarin, rode her bicycle unaccompanied, ran the household singlehanded when her father traveled, and became so independent that her father found her difficult to control. He sent her off to boarding school where she appeared to be a typical hockey-playing, uniformed, drab teenager. At home in Peking for the holidays, she transformed herself into a glamorous woman in black, wearing lipstick and kohl.

“I am afraid of nothing...Peking is the safest city in the world,” were Pamela’s last words to her friends before she left them on the night of her murder, which took place almost a month before her twentieth birthday. Two detectives, one British and one Chinese, combed the city for clues as to who her killer might have been and discovered Pamela had been pursued by more than one man. Despite her demure schoolgirl persona, her true self was much more the seductress in black.

History was unkind to Pamela. The investigation of her murder was soon supplanted by Japanese tanks in the streets of Peking (a mere goodwill parade, the Japanese Legation assured the city) and the sky was loud with the noise of Japanese Zero aircraft, buzzing overhead. By the end of July, Peking was a conquered city.

Her father however spent all of his money and energy in his attempts to find his daughter’s killer. The decadence and cruelty that he discovered on his own would have shaken and horrified Peking’s expatriate world had the war not intervened.

Much as Erik Larson did in Devil in the White City, Paul French has taken historical true crime and given it the depth and suspense of a good novel. Midnight in Peking is a book that recreates a time and place with vivid accuracy, while bringing a horrible crime to a stunning close, seventy-five years after Pamela Werner was murdered.~Janet Brown