Midnight in Peking by Paul French

In Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Penguin, 2013) author Paul French takes the reader back to January 1937 and sheds light upon the gruesome murder of Pamela Werner. The case was never solved and has been largely forgotten for more than half a century. The adopted daughter of retired British Consul and sinologist E. T. C. Werner and his late wife Gladys Nina, Pamela grew up in Peking (modern day Beijing) in the final years of ‘Old China.’ Pamela experienced a vanished world, a world before the Japanese occupation during WWII and the rise of communism that followed under Mao changed China irrevocably.

The text opens with an incredibly insightful chapter on 1930s Peking, the city’s rich history, and informative passages regarding the various groups which called the city home. In addition to the Chinese, Peking was home to foreigners from dozens of countries, many of whom lived within their respective legations, as well as a large population of white Russian refugees, those loyal to the Tsar and forced to flee in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the early pages of the book, once the scene has been set and the political atmosphere of January 1937 described in detail by French, the shockingly brutal murder of twenty-year-old Pamela is revealed. Her body, mutilated almost beyond recognition is found at the base of Peking’s famous Fox Tower, close to the Werner home and a site believed by much of Peking’s Chinese population to be haunted by fox spirits. From the start the case is perplexing: most of Pamela’s internal organs have been removed, her body is completely drained of blood, yet her expensive watch set with diamonds remains.

            With the background of setting and characters described and the discovery of the murder laid out, French swiftly enters upon the official investigation, which takes up the remaining first half of the text. Given that Pamela is a British subject, the case is of special importance to the police, detectives, and the press alike. Early in the investigation it becomes clear to the investigators that there are two Pamelas; the drab schoolgirl verging on womanhood who lives alone with her scholar father, and a glamorous young woman looking for adventure as she enters the adult world. British detective Dennis, assigned to the case along with Chinese detective Han, searches for every available witness, clue, and suspect related to Pamela’s murder, but even though the mystery only continues to deepen, within months the case is closed but no one is brought to justice. With a Japanese invasion looming, the murder of a young Englishwoman quickly fades from the headlines as Peking’s residents, both local and foreign, begin to take measures of self-preservation. In the first half of the text, French has deftly walked the reader through every movement of the official investigation, confronting every fact and rumour which surrounded Pamela’s death.

Studio portrait of Pamela Werner taken shortly before her death (Public Domain)

            Aghast that his daughter’s killer has not been caught, Pamela’s father, E. T. C. Werner mounts his own investigation to uncover the truth. As detailed by French in the second half of Midnight in Peking, what Werner uncovers is horrific. Descending into the dark underworld of Peking, Werner’s investigation brings to light the truth about his daughter’s final hours, but his quest along creates shocking revelations in relation to the original investigation which was fruitless in solving the crime.  Not only does Werner piece together what led to Pamela’s murder, but also identifies her killer. Rebuffed by the British colonial government at every turn, Werner persists in his determination to have his daughter’s case reopened, going so far as to seek assistance from the Japanese, and forwarding every piece of new evidence he dredges up to the authorities. All in vain, however, as those in power have no intention of finding justice for Pamela, wishing for reasons of their own to let the case drop, as revealed by French.

Early 20th century view of the Fox Tower, Peking (now Beijing)

            Arguably one of the strengths of French’s work is his success in recreating the scenes and characters of Old Peking. In addition to the quickly unfolding political events of the late 1930s, French provides the proper context for an analysis of Pamela Werner’s murder and the investigations that followed. While there are some landmarks which remain, such as the Fox Tower and the former home of the Werners on Factory Alley, the city Pamela knew with its diverse assortment of inhabitants from destitute white Russian refugees to wealthy European foreigners, had, at least atmospherically, changed quickly in the months after her murder as the Japanese came to occupy the city. Political developments are discussed at length throughout the text and are succinctly intertwined with the murder investigations, adding context, and providing the reader with a deeper understanding of this historical period.

            Although French has crafted an intriguing narrative of a period of Chinese history which has virtually disappeared, from an historian’s perspective the work lacks an in-depth discussion of the sources. Indeed, while French does briefly mention the various historical sources that he consulted when uncovering Pamela’s story and the subsequent investigations that followed in a short section at the end of the book, there is little mention of sources throughout the work. While the reader has no reason to doubt the accuracy of French’s scholarship in his assessment of the case, it would have certainly strengthened the work if there had been more references to the sources used and how the author has interpreted the information gleaned. Especially given the scope of the sources, as the archives of several nations are relevant to this study, a more detailed description of French’s methodology, either spread throughout the text or forming part of an early chapter, would have added a further element of interest to the work.

Gladys Nina and E. T. C. Werner after their marriage in 1911 at St. John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong

            Unlike some works of true crime, in Midnight in Peking author Paul French does not reveal the likely perpetrator of the crime until the final pages, but instead allows the reader to guess for themselves as he dissects the case of Pamela Werner and the two investigations that followed in intense detail. Although he ultimately aligns himself with Werner’s findings, French has written Pamela’s story in a way which recognizes that this case is officially unsolved, and probably never will be, while at the same time proving an in-depth assessment of the investigations’ findings, especially that undertaken by Werner himself. Pamela’s is a story of tragedy during, a glittering period of history, but one which French tells with respect and accuracy.

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About the Author: 

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021 he will be pursuing a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspect of Victorian Britain and its global empire, with his MA thesis focusing on Queen Victoria’s interest and impact on music during her reign. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, rug-hooking, and thrifting. 

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