The Midnight in Peking Reading Guide
January, 1937: The murder of a young English woman shook the city of Peking to its core; an investigation was launched and then lost in the tumultuous years of war that followed. Her killer escaped justice – until now.
Seventy-five years later, in Midnight in Peking, Paul French finally gives the case the resolution it was denied at the time, and in doing so he provides a sweepingly evocative account of the end of an era.
About the Author: Paul French studied history, economics and Mandarin in London and has an M. Phil in economics from the University of Glasgow. He is now based in Shanghai as a business advisor and analyst. He is the author of four works of Asian History including Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand and Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from the Opium Wars to Mao and wrote the foreword to Penguin’s Shanghai: A History in Photographs 1842-Today.
N.B. Midnight in Pekingis the reconstruction of a true crime that occurred in 1937 in the Chinese city of Peking. Though based on fact it is written in the style of a novel using a range of traditional literary fiction techniques and is what is now considered creative non-fiction.
Spoiler Warning: These questions may reveal important details from within Midnight in Pekingby Paul French. It is recommended that you finish the book before reading on.
Q&A WITH PAUL FRENCH [Show]
When and where did you first discover Pamela, and what was it that piqued your interest in her story?
I was reading a rather dry and academic biography of the famous American journalist Edgar Snow who became well known in China in the 1930s. A small footnote stated that his neighbour had been Pamela Werner, a young English woman murdered in 1937 and whose killing was never solved. The footnote mentioned that Edgar’s wife Helen thought she might have been the real target of the killer and that Pamela’s father was a suspect as well as a notorious ‘sex cult’ run by a rather ragtag group dubious foreigners in Peking. That all rather grabbed my attention!! I went to sleep and in the morning Pamela was front and centre in my mind and I decided she was worth looking into – she’s stayed lodged in my brain ever since.
Pamela’s murder was brutal, it led to waves of panic spreading through both foreign and Chinese Peking at the time. The whole city, and actually the whole of China, followed the investigation in the newspapers while armchair detectives all offered their own theories. Yet within six months of Pamela’s murder China was plunged into a horrific war for its very survival – Beijing and Tianjin were under Japanese occupation, Shanghai was being bombed by Japanese planes and the horrific Rape of Nanjing occurred.
Why is the story of Pamela’s murder significant?
Pamela’s was one murder that seemed to presage even greater horrors for everyone in China. In 1937 her killing, when everyone really knew things were about to get a lot worse for them all, really coalesced the terror that Chinese civilization was about to be overrun by the forces of barbarism. Stalin (who would have known!!) said “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”…I felt that even back then, on the eve of World War Two, and now, Pamela felt to people like that one tragedy.
You have written a number of books before this, but Midnight in Peking is your first foray into a more literary style. Why did you choose to write this book in this way, and how does it affect the story?
I’m story led – the story dictates the style as far as I’m concerned. In the past the stories I’ve picked and the characters I’ve written about have dictated to me a (hopefully) fairly casual but definitely traditional non-fiction style. At its heartMidnight in Peking is a murder story and so I thought why not use the conventions and stylistic traits of crime fiction, particularly the noir crime fiction that is now so symbolic of the 1930s and 1940s, the same time period as Midnight in Peking.
Additionally I was thinking of books that had used literary devices to both tell dramatic true stories in ways that really convey the mood and sensibilities of the time and bring real characters to life better than might be possible in straight non-fiction. I’m thinking of creative non-fiction books that I love such as James Fox’s White Mischief about the still unsolved 1941 murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Erroll, in Kenya and the rather unflattering light that crime shed on the ‘fast set’ of Europeans in Kenya’s so-called Happy Valley. I’d also cite James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, about the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles (A horrific killing that has overlaps with the mutilations inflicted upon Pamela Werner) and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which used a true crime to reveal the fascinating dirty linen of Savannah, Georgia. All these books combined the details of true crimes but also superbly recreated the locations and times the murders occurred in. I hope Midnight in Peking does the same for 1937 Beijing.
Of course ultimately I hope that the more literary style I’ve used makes the book a great read, heightens the suspense in the way a great crime book should and also presents an evocative portrait of a Peking that was swept up and destroyed during the Second World War. A tall order but I felt the genre of creative non-fiction could achieve this if my writing was up to it!!
The characters in Midnight in Peking all existed in real life, do you feel as though you have portrayed them accurately? How did you go about bringing them to life without allowing them to become fictional?
If you want to know how easy it is to write literary fiction then try writing literary non-fiction!! Fiction writers are absolute dictators who are able to order their characters to do whatever they like. I was faced with characters who had messy lives, whose motives were not always obvious and who made mistakes and didn’t leave nice detailed diaries. Just as in real life, my characters lived messy unfinished lives while fictional characters can be tidied up, their every act explained, their reasonings divined – because it’s all just make believe. And you can’t tidy up after them the way fiction writers get to. You’re stuck with your characters, warts and all, loose ends included.
On the other hand at times the truth can certainly be stranger than fiction and actions and motivations that would appear too staged or contrived can sometimes be what actually happened.
In Midnight in Peking no characters actions or words are invented, no locations are made up, the timeline is real and only what is known for sure is included- there are no suppositions, perhaps or maybes. That’s why I insisted on footnoting the book so that if readers felt I had strayed from the actual events into fiction they could refer to the notes and see the original source of the characters words, actions or motivations.
Of course when dealing with real people, people who are long dead, it is frustrating. I talked to as many people as possible, I found as many pictures of them as possible, letters they wrote, interviews they gave, postcards they sent, diaries and notes they kept. However, it is hard to get people in their former living and breathing entirety – what they smelt like, their accents, their particular mannerisms and twitches that made them unique individuals. That is something I find frustrating. For instance a couple of people told me, and several others wrote, that Pamela’s rare grey eyes were quite entrancing, they were hard to look away from and were something very unique and special about her. But sadly none of the black and white photos of her are quite capable of capturing this feature that anyone who knew her saw and instantly recalled.
Tell us a bit about your research for Midnight in Peking; what documents did you find, who did you speak to and where did you travel to during the process?
I started out by going to the archives in Shanghai and Hong Kong and reading all the newspaper reports from the time about Pamela’s murder. The story was front-page news for what used to be known as the China Coast press, English language newspapers in Shanghai, Tientsin (Tianjin) and Peking. Very early I saw a picture of Pamela taken just before she died when she clearly believed she had her whole life before her. One glance at that picture in the archives and I knew I was going to write a book about her murder. From there I looked up all the available records I could find and delved into the background of the characters involved.
I was most intrigued by Pamela’s father, a former British Consul in China and a noted but somewhat tetchy Sinologist as well as the investigative partnership between Colonel Han, the top detective on the Peking Police Force and DCI Dick Dennis, an ex-Scotland Yard policeman who happened to be stationed in the nearby British Concession at Tientsin. That part of the story was too good to make up!
But my real breakthrough, my ‘eureka moment’, came in the UK’s National Archives at Kew in London. I was looking through a box of jumbled up and unnumbered documents from the British Embassy in China in the 1940s when I found a 150 page or so long document sent to the Foreign Office by ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. These documents were the detailed notes of a private investigation he had conducted after the Japanese occupation of Peking until he was himself interned by the Japanese along with all other Allied foreigners after Pearl Harbor. It was a fascinating document with a lot of new evidence as well as an impassioned plea by a distraught father for his daughter’s murder case to be reopened. However, his investigation fell on deaf ears – the British establishment in China had decided that Werner and his daughter’s killing were an embarrassing loss of face for Britain in the Far East while in London the Blitz was at its height and the war in Europe consumed everyone’s attention. Pamela, and her father’s investigation, were forgotten…until the day I turned up and asked for the files to be retrieved from Kew’s voluminous stacks.
Did you know who the murderer was when you started to write? How sure are you that you have got the right person?
When I started I had no idea who the murderer was, I only had suspects. They were all intriguing – her elderly and curmudgeonly father, her headmaster, one of any number of white ‘driftwood’ that lived nearby Pamela’s Peking home and hung out in the Badlands area among the brothels, dive-bars and opium dens…a fairly intriguing cast.
However, once I found Werner’s private investigation and began cross-referencing what he had discovered with what the official police investigation of Colonel Han and DCI Dennis had found out I became convinced that ETC Werner had got to the dark heart of the matter.
I was convinced Werner was right and so I wanted to tell his story – I hope people read the book and ask questions for themselves. I hope the arguments in the book are persuasive enough and backed up with evidence and facts. We’ve also created a great website with more background documents, evidence, contemporary newspaper articles and pictures of all the major characters and locations to add to what is in the book.
Having lived in Shanghai for a number of years, how would you describe your relationship with China and how did you negotiate writing a book that is so entwined with the city of Beijing (over Shanghai)?
Shanghai is a fascinating city for many, many reasons. I’ve written about the city in the past and intend to do so again in the future. However, Beijing has its own attractions. In the historical period that interests me – the interwar period – Shanghai was a foreign administered treaty port and both the International Settlement and Frenchtown were wide open places where refugees didn’t need papers, gangsters ran amok, China’s fractious politics collided in bloodshed and a hell of a lot of partying went on right up to the end. But Peking was different – Peking was a city concerned with appearances, a city that tried to smother scandal rather than reveling in it as Shanghai did. Shanghai lifted its skirt and flashed the goods to passersby; Peking was all fur coat and no knickers!! Peking was a city that always protected tradition, be it the foreign Legations or Chinese customs and manners from a previous era, while Shanghai embraced the modern with gusto…cinema, cars, radio, jazz, machine guns, heroin, fashion. Shanghai was all show, Peking all surface and so getting under that veneer of proprietary to the scandals that lay beneath and the resentments and crimes that festered was challenging. It’s also the case that Shanghai history in the 1920s and 1930s is quite well known. I think people have a picture in their head when you mention Shanghai 1937 – women in cheongsams and men in dinner jackets dancing to jazz on a balcony overlooking the Bund! Peking 1937 is much less well worn territory and therefore a challenge.
What were the social and cultural divisions in Peking in the 1930s? The British had their own safe haven in the Legation Quarter, were there other sets of rules for the White Russians, and the Chinese themselves?
I think when most people think of China in the 1930s they think of Shanghai – jazz, gangsters, beautiful White Russian dancers, Chinese ladies in Cheongsam, art-deco nightclubs etc. But Peking was different – Peking was not a treaty port under foreign control like Shanghai; it was all Chinese territory and it was an ancient city, a dark city. It was also a city that had fallen behind – Shanghai was the most modern city in Asia, Nanjing was the Chinese capital; Peking had become a bit of a backwater. Peking was also very nervous – it bordered onto Manchuria and northern China where the Japanese had been in occupation since 1932 – they knew they were next! Many of the Chinese were, at the higher level, scholars or former imperial bureaucrats who had served the old Qing Dynasty – again, an older, more traditional China than Shanghai. At the lower end, the Chinese population was swollen by penniless and desperate migrants from Japanese-occupied Manchuria. It was a combustible situation with a weak local government.
The foreigners were also very divided. At the top were the former diplomats and the old China Hands with money, privilege and their ‘gilded cage’ of the Legation Quarter that looked and felt like Europe but was surrounded by China. Outside the quarter lay the “Badlands” and the Tartar City where another class of Europeans lived made up of, largely poor and destitute, White Russian exiles, a more recent group of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany and quite a few white ‘driftwood’, foreigners who had reached the end of the line and fell into opium addiction, drug dealing, prostitution, begging, gun running or acting as mercenaries.
This latter group of foreign ‘driftwood’ has been little talked about by historians traditionally as they leave fewer traces or memoirs. Their stories are much harder to uncover. However, Pamela’s murder represented a point when the smart and privileged world of the Legation Quarter met the dark underworld of the Badlands and shed a rather revealing light on the equally scandalous goings on in both communities.
What is the most surprising thing about Pamela’s story?
For me the most surprising aspect of the story was how my attitude to some of the characters changed over time. This was particularly true of Pamela’s father, ETC Werner. By all accounts most people who knew him agreed that he was aloof, somewhat snobbish, did not suffer fools gladly and had a quick temper. He was a man many admired but few appear to have liked. I felt that way about him too at first. But when I began to read his own notes of his private investigation into Pamela’s murder closely I suddenly heard the voice of a loving father in intense personal pain over the sudden and horrible loss of his daughter. He was a man of his times – outwardly cold and detached, very stiff upper lip and all that…but inside he clearly loved Pamela very deeply and went to extraordinary lengths at great personal risk as well as spending his life’s savings and ruining his health to try and find her killers.
There’s also no point in denying that over the years it took to research this book I developed a rather deep obsession with Pamela herself. I wanted desperately to know her better, to sense what the last days of her life were like, to understand her. At times I felt extremely sad that she had not lived to become a happy, yet anonymous, grandmother somewhere with a stack of tall tales of life in Peking to tell her grandchildren. I was surprised at myself for how deeply that affected me emotionally and how determined that made me to finish the book and do the best job I possibly could, for Pamela, so that her life was not lived in vain and so that people would remember her. That seemed, and still does seem, very important to me somehow.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
For me crime stories – real or fictional – are ultimately all about character, period and location. When I read crime fiction I almost immediately forget what the motive for the murder was, or which clue it was that led the detective to the killer. What I do remember are the characters, the places, the historical ambience. Crime writing does that better than any other sort of literature I think. So I hope that I’ve done a good enough job of writing to allow readers to immerse themselves in a time and place that did exist – 1937 Peking. I hope that the locations – the Legation Quarter, thehutongs, the Badlands – will come alive and that with them so too the characters may start to feel three dimensional and real. If I’ve achieved that then my ultimate aim – to remember Pamela, might just be realized. In January 1937 a horrific crime was committed and nobody was ever brought to justice for it. That throws our sense of right and wrong off balance, forces our world out of harmony. I think it’s important, even seventy five years later, that we remember. In the remembering, in the not forgetting someone whose life was stolen, is a form of justice, a rebalancing, a return to some sort of harmony. In a sense, through my book, perhaps Pamela lives again in our collective memory. I hope so, she deserves to.
READING GUIDE – DISCUSSION QUESTIONS [Show]
1. Pamela Werner is quickly revealed to be both a plain schoolgirl in Tientsin and a glamourous young lady in Peking. To what extent were there two Pamela’s? Was Pamela really living two separate lives? Does the evidence suggest that she was simply changing her behaviour slightly depending on her company, presenting different sides of herself to different people?
2. Colonel Han and DCI Dennis collaborate well during the murder investigation. Their co-dependent working relationship was unusual between Chinese and foreigners especially in such high profile, high stress situations. How far do you think the two really got along as men, as two policemen and how far were they able to understand each other despite their vast cultural differences? Did their relationship have any bearing on the outcome of their investigation?
3. Midnight in Peking is written in a literary style perhaps more familiar to works of fiction than non-fiction. Does this style work? Would we have had the same sympathies or dislikes of various characters if the book had been a more straightforward retelling of historical events? Can we trust the historical accuracy of an account written in this narrative style? If you owned a bookshop, what section would you display this book in – true crime, mystery, thriller, history?
4. Though years of research went into Midnight in Peking, Paul French aimed for the book to ‘wear the research lightly’ in the hope that the reader would be able to soak up the atmosphere of the place and time without feeling as though they were getting a history lecture. Does he succeed in conveying the history of the times successfully without it becoming too weighty?
5. What impact does the backdrop of Peking on the verge of the Japanese occupation have on Pamela’s story? What elements of the description make the setting come alive?
6. Peking has never been publically remembered for having a louche personality in the way that Shanghai has. Does it surprise you that such terrible things happened in Peking at that time? How does life in Peking in the 1930s as described in Midnight in Peking compare to your previous conceptions?
7. Prentice represents the intersection of the upright and uptight foreign society with the errant and sinful. Do you think it is surprising that the two worlds existed so closely, that they collided? Do you think the contrast exists in every community? Did being abroad have anything to do with how some of the foreigners behaved or would they have behaved in the same way were they at home?
8. Was ETC Werner a difficult man? Does your impression of him change as you learn more about his past and more about the role he played in solving the murder of his daughter? By the end of the book, can we say that Werner is a hero?
9. Pamela was a victim, but what of her killers? How do you see the men involved in her murder and did you think of them in the same way throughout the book? Are they intrinsically evil?
10. Do you find the evidence set out in Midnight in Peking to be compelling? Do you find it to be conclusive?
PAUL FRENCH’S FUTHER READING SUGGESTIONS [Show]
There are a lot of books available that deal with Peking between the wars – fiction, non-fiction and memoirs. However, compared to either Shanghai or Hong Kong there’s not actually terribly much on the foreign experience in Peking. The selection below is aimed at providing the non-academic reader with a few readily available titles that give a little of the atmosphere of the old Peking that is central to my book. As far as the flavour, tastes and smells of Peking between the wars is concerned perhaps the best starting point are the great Chinese novels of that period. The best by far is Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy, set in 1936 and actually published in January 1937 the month the action in Midnight in Pekingbegins. A central text of the Chinese literary canon, Rickshaw Boy follows the travails and struggles of one determined but underdog Peking rickshaw puller through the alleyways and hutongs of the city with the roadside snack stalls, argumentative customers and run-ins with the police. Lao She vividly describes Peking in 1936 as “filthy, beautiful, decadent, bustling, chaotic, idle, lovable”.
To get an idea of the swirling history of Peking in the first decades of the twentieth century I’d recommend reading Lin Yutang’s – Moment in Peking, a great and sprawling novel that covers the turbulent events between 1900 and 1938, including the Boxer Uprising, the 1911 Republican revolution, the warlord era, the rise of nationalism and communism, and the Japanese invasion in 1937. Lin was a very international Chinese intellectual and wrote the novel primarily for a western audience, though it remains a classic in China and has been filmed for the cinema and TV repeatedly.
There are also some contemporary foreign memoirs and novels from the Republican-era that offer insights into the incestuous world of foreign Peking. For my money the wittiest and best observed novel of the period, and the one that best encapsulates the goldfish bowl world of the privileged, is Harold Acton’s Ponies and Peonies. Acton, a British writer and arch-aesthete, developed a love of Chinese poetry and theatre. He was a celebrated resident of Peking between 1932 and 1939 and was a central figure in the rarefied, but gossipy and bitchy, scholar-diplomat world that Pamela and ETC would have known so well. Published in 1941, Ponies and Peonies is a sharp, almost Nancy Mitford-style, satire of the foreign community both within the Legation Quarter and living in sumptuous courtyards like those on Armour Factory Alley. Acton expertly reveals the petty jealousies and intrigues that festered in Peking’s foreign community on the eve of the Japanese invasion.
Several other, somewhat earlier, novels of Peking are also worth reading. Daniele Varé’s The Maker of Heavenly Trousers is a humorous and affectionate account by a former Italian Ambassador to China. He lightly parodies the Chinese and the foreigners they serve while lavishing much attention on the landscapes of Peking and lamenting the imperial China by then just passed. Two other well-connected foreigners lamented the loss of Peking as an imperial city and also wrote of the incestuousness of the foreign goldfish bowl of the Legation Quarter. Silhouettes of Peking is the work of no lesser a personage than the former Minister of the French Legation in Peking, Le Comte Damien de Martel and a Russian financier and head of the Banque Russo-Chinoise in Peking, Léon Viktorovich de Hoyer. The two men-about-town collaborated in 1926 to write a rather racy and gossipy account of Peking’s most prominent foreigners, their flirtatious picnics in the Western Hills, idle summer seaside sojourns and numerous love affairs born of boredom and the rather louche atmosphere of foreign Peking in the twenties.
Again it seems that old Peking has spawned not nearly as many memoirs as Hong Kong or Shanghai in its 1930s heyday. But there are a few worth reading. Primary among these is Jon Blofeld’s City of Lingering Splendour: A Frank Account of Old Peking’s Exotic Pleasures. Blofeld describes the rich exoticism and frank sexuality of Peking between the wars and also has a chapter specifically dealing with the White Russian bars, cabarets and clubs of the Badlands.
David Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China recalls events just before the revolution of 1949 but is a superb evocation of living in a grand old siheyuan courtyard house. Similarly George Kates’s The Years That Were Fat recalls a slower pace of life cloistered in a Peking courtyard between 1933 and 1940 and the lives of the fast disappearing scholar class. Kates, not unlike ETC Werner, was a dedicated Sinologist and aesthete of all things Chinese. As a slight aside anyone interested in Tientsin and life there could do no better than to read Brian Power’s The Ford of Heaven, an evocative account of one boy growing up in the cosmopolitan environment of treaty port Tientsin and its foreign concessions.
Finally, Hedda Morrison’s photographic memoir A Photographer in Old Peking is full of images and memories of the city between 1933 and 1946 compiled by one of the finest photographers who ever worked in China.