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A date with death

2 June 2012

7:00 PM

2 June 2012

7:00 PM

Midnight in Peking: The Murder that Haunted the Last Days of Old China Paul French

Viking, pp.260, £12.99

On 8 January 1937, an old man was taking his prize songbird for an early morning walk in the eastern section of Peking when he came across a woman’s body lying in a ditch. The face had been disfigured, the ribs hacked apart and the heart removed. Pathologists who examined the corpse thought it was one of the worst cases of mutilation they had ever seen — ‘and that was saying something’.

She was identified as a 19-year-old British schoolgirl called Pamela Werner, the adopted daughter of a former British consul, Edward Werner. To begin with, the murder was thought to be the work of a random sex maniac. Pamela had been a quiet, rather plain girl and it seemed inconceivable that she might have known her killer.

But as the investigation proceeded, Pamela proved to be less quiet and plain than everyone had thought. The autopsy revealed that she’d had sexual intercourse ‘at some time in the recent past’. It also turned out she had a boyfriend, and on the night of her death had accepted an invitation to a party that had ended up in the ‘Badlands’, an area full of knocking-shops and opium dens that abutted the sedate Legation Quarter where most of her friends lived.

Next, suspicion fell on her father himself. Certainly, Edward Werner was a tremendous oddball. Obsessed with trying to find the tomb of Genghis Khan, he used to wander round Peking in ‘wraparound dark glasses of his own design’ to protect his eyes from dust. He was known to possess a ferocious temper — he’d once struck one of Pamela’s friends across the face with his cane, breaking his nose. What’s more, his wife had died in mysterious circumstances some years earlier.

To add an extra layer of drama to the proceedings, the Japanese army was encamped just nine miles from the Forbidden City, awaiting the order to advance. Peking at the time was humming with rumours — one of which concerned strange goings-on at a nudist colony in the hills outside the city. By day, the colony attracted harmlessly batty naturists who went picnicking there. But by night it was reputed to be a den of appalling iniquity, where nubile innocents were ravaged by priapic swingers.

Suspicion shifted away from Werner and onto the nocturnal nudists. However, the police, whether through incompetence or corruption, were peculiarly loth to pursue their investigations. Werner therefore decided to take matters into his own hands. He put up a substantial reward for information and took to hanging round the brothels of the Badlands, trying to pick up clues. These led increasingly towards one man.

But by now the Japanese had swept into Peking and Europeans were being interned. In a barely credible twist, Werner and the man he was convinced had killed his daughter were put in the same detention camp. Inmates recalled Werner pointing at the man and shouting, ‘You killed her, I know you killed Pamela. You did it.’

Here, then, are all the ingredients for a first-rate murder story. There’s an exotic locale — in fact two exotic locales next to one another: the Legation Quarter, ‘Europe in miniature’, with European street names and electric streetlights; and the dingy, moral cesspool of the Badlands. There are also plenty of exotic characters, among them a White Russian hermaphrodite able to pass convincingly as either a man or a woman. And there’s a killer who was never brought to justice.

At times, Paul French’s desire to animate the action runs away with him a bit — he describes people’s conversations, their thoughts, even their sleeping habits in a manner that I suspect owes more to imagination than research. Yet such quibbles are likely to be swept aside as the story hurtles along from one cliffhanger to the next.

French plainly knows how to write a thrilling narrative, adroitly knotting his various strands together, and crisply delineating his characters. He knows his stuff too, having spent ten years in China as a foreign correspondent. And if that’s not enough, it is, I would suggest, very hard to resist any book in which one chapter ends with the line: ‘Meanwhile, somewhere out there were Pamela’s internal organs.’

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