Sunday, September 30, 2012

Not For The Faint of Heart

 In years past, I often referred library patrons to the 364.1523 section of the Dewey Decimal system - the classification number for True Crime. This was territory ruled by Ann (Rule) and shared by Joe McGinniss, Jack Olsen and the late Thomas Thompson.     

Lately, I've barely thought about the 364s until a friend recommended Midnight In Peking, which should garner author Paul French a well-deserved corner of that bloody terrain.

A looming watchtower called The Fox Tower has dominated the landscape of Old Peking since the 15th century and is believed to be haunted by fox spirits. Legend says that "having lured their chosen victims, they simply love them to death. They then strike their tails to the ground to produce fire and disappear, leaving only a corprse behind them".

In the icy dawn of January 8, 1937 the wild dogs - the "huang gou" - were frantically sniffing at something along the ditch between the Fox Tower and the road. Tragically, the "something" was the brutally mutilated and murdered 20 year old body of Pamela Werner. Pamela was the only child of E. T. C. Werner, a former British Consul and brilliant Chinese scholar who had called China home for more than fifty years. Pamela had been orphaned and adopted at birth by a middle-aged Werner and his wife of less than half his age who died when Pamela was very young. Intelligent, living the privileged life of a European and totally fluent in Chinese and Chinese culture, Pamela endured long periods alone when her father was off doing his research. This resulted in an independent spirit far beyond her years but also produced a rebellious streak that caused her to be expelled from more than one boarding school. Her father was most content at home with his papers, disdainful of Peking's ex-pat hunting and partying social elite. He doted on his daughter but was also known to have a violent temper, once striking a would-be boyfriend's of Pamela's with his cane and breaking his nose.

Two detectives - one Chinese, one British - worked for several years on the case. E. T. C. Werner was cleared from wrongdoing but that left a long list of possibilities including various unsavory characters from Peking's criminal underbelly as well as a suspicious headmaster from Pamela's school. But evidence and time were in short supply, for Peking was standing on the threshold of the Japanese invasion and that dreaded event dwarfed every other consideration. The investigation was eventually officially shelved. Werner, determined to see justice done took matters into his own hands, sending his private investigative findings on to the British bureaucracy for many years to come - a bureaucracy that stubbornly refused to re-open the case.

As John Berendt made Savannah a character in Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, French does the same for the Peking of the 1930s - a city of one and a half million, harboring a foreign population of several thousand including a fascinating mix of diplomats, journalists, European and American refugees from the Great Depression, destitute White Russians, the odd traveler who came and never left, and a wide array of pimp, prostitutes and dope dealers.

It was a footnote that led to the writing of Midnight In Peking. French was reading a biography of the American journalist Edgar Snow and there was a reference to his wife's nervousness after Pamela was discovered not far from their home. The next day, French awoke thinking about the murder. He knew he had to write about it. For the next seven years, he scoured newspapers, archives, letters and every other possible source to reconstruct motive and method. Midnight in Peking is a riveting and richly detailed account of what might have been.


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