Interview: Paul French, author of Midnight in China
Pamela Werner was 19 when her heart and her body were left under a ‘haunted watchtower’ in Peking in 1937. Paul French tells David Robinson how he can finally name the killer
I haven’t met anyone like Paul French before. He is a 6ft 5in, straight-talking 45-year-old Londoner, and if you want to know what kind of business you should set up in China right now, he is one of the go-to guys. He has worked in Shanghai nearly all his adult life, set up a market research business with a friend when western firms were just starting to move in, and when he sold it last year he became rich. The people who bought his company gave him a three-year golden handcuffs deal, a job as their chief China market strategist and a credit card to travel anywhere he wants in China to research anything that catches his fancy. “It’s all big picture stuff,” he says. “Is China going to have a hard landing or a soft one? How much of their economy is a smoke and mirrors act and how much is sustainable?”
He shrugs, the way you do when you want to say that it’s no big deal. “Just right time, right place. If you learnt Chinese when I did and went to China when I did – 1993 – and didn’t make a lot of money, you’re an idiot.”
Right now, though, he’s not bothered about the latest business prospects in the Middle Kingdom (though he drops a hint that there’s probably a fortune awaiting anyone building luxury old people’s homes for rich Chinese). What he really wants to talk about is the book he has just written about the murder of a teenage British girl in 1937 Peking. Midnight in Peking is already being talked about as a true crime classic in the same breath as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and not just by his publishers’ publicists: the company behind Spooks is going to turn it into a TV drama series, and it will be Radio 4’s Book of the Week next week.
The book tells the story of the murder of Pamela Werner, the 19-year-old only daughter of former British consul Edward Werner. Months before the Japanese invaded, her body was found under a Peking watchtower that was believed to be haunted. Her heart had been cut out.
French came across the story when he was researching a book about early 20th-century western foreign correspondents in China. In a biography of Edgar Snow, the Communist American journalist who first wrote about Mao Tse-Tung in the 1930s bestseller Red Star Over China, there was a footnote saying that his wife Helen, also a journalist, thought that she had been the murderers’ intended victim: they lived nearby and both had written things that could have antagonised Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. There was an intriguing suggestion that the murder involved some kind of a “love cult”, along with the statement that the crime had never been solved.
“Originally, I thought even that would be enough. It was a good story with some good characters in an intriguing place and time. Unusually, it was investigated by a Chinese policeman as well as a British one. I tracked down everyone I could find who knew Pamela and her father, and that, I thought, would be that. At the end, I would have written a chapter saying that life isn’t like CSI, that this was just one death in what would soon be millions, as civilisation collapsed into barbarism with the rape of Nanking and the start of the Second World War. I think I could have got away with that.”
In 2009 he was in London researching the last chapter about what happened to all the characters in the story. The British detective, he knew, had been tortured by the Japanese and in the war crimes tribunals had testified against a Japanese commander and seen him hanged. All the materials for that would be in the National Archives at Kew, so one rainy day in 2009 he went there.
“There was a box that said, ‘Correspondence, British Legation, Peking, 1943’. And I thought, what’s that? Because there was no British legation in Peking in 1943: after Pearl Harbour everyone had got out or been interned and the embassy had long been locked up. ” And so it had. It was just a simple labelling error: all it meant was that the documents, delayed by the exigencies of war, had arrived in Britain in 1943. Yet when he looked in the box, he realised that he had struck gold.
Edward Werner, Pamela’s father, had always refused to accept that his daughter’s killer would never be brought to justice. Painstakingly, and despite official indifference and obfuscation, he had launched a private investigation that uncovered her killers. Even better, he had written it up in 150 closely-typed and annotated pages.
“It was,” grins French, “my eureka moment. I photocopied the pages, went to the pub around the corner, and read through it. And knowing what I already did from the autopsy and the police investigation and from all the people I had already talked to, all the newspaper reports, all the bits that I’d dug up that nobody knew at the time, I thought, ‘We’ve got it!’” He could, at last, put a name to Pamela Werner’s murderer.
“Before that, I had thought that Pamela might have been killed because of an affair with a married man that went bad, or that she might have become involved with a swingers’ group. Then I spent months thinking it might have been something to do with the dodgy headmaster at her grammar school in Tientsin. I had no idea that it was going to turn out as dark as it actually was.”
Don’t expect me to reveal how dark Midnight in Peking turns out to be. But it involves a decadent White Mischief-type set of expatriates, Badlands brothels, and a 19-year-old girl who had always thought Peking was one of the safest places in the world, then suddenly found herself out of her depth.
“The irony is,” says French, “by and large it is a safe place. It’s not Russia: I have never felt threatened there, or worried about my wife coming home late. I’ve never even seen a punch-up on the street. And the only racism westerners experience is of being treated too well. My wife, who is Chinese, says that in most countries people are nice to each other and nasty to outsiders; in China it’s the other way round. They’re nice to outsiders – well, apart from black people and people who have ginger hair like they imagine ghosts do.”
The more French thought himself inside Werner’s grieving mind, piecing together the clues that he is convinced point to the killer, the more he came to respect him. “At first he had seemed to me a rather cold, distant father. And perhaps that, along with sending Pamela to boarding school in Tientsin might have turned her into the fun-loving girl she was.
But by the end of the book, you can see that he was a lot more than that. You judge him by his actions: he bankrupted himself and ruined his health to bring her killer to justice and most readers will really feel for him at the end.”
For French, ETC Werner was the kind of Sinophile he could identify with right at the start. “He wasn’t your usual British imperialist: he spoke several Chinese dialects and lived outside the Legation Quarter. People forget that mandarin has only been the national language since 1949 and that until then most people didn’t learn it – they just learnt the language of the region in which they worked. That’s why even now practically every Chinese TV programme is subtitled, because everyone can read the same language even though speakers of different dialects can’t always understand each other. The Chinese would have been amazed by anyone mastering six or seven dialects, which is why Werner was so respected. ”
French, too, is “a languages nut”, studying Chinese at the University of London and Economics in Glasgow, going to Shanghai in 1987 as part of his first degree. “It was as if someone had thrown a sheet over the place in 1949 and just left it there: of all the Chinese cities, Shanghai was the last to marketise because it was the least trusted by the Party.”
Both there and in London he was rigorously taught how to write Chinese; because all left-handers were automatically failed, he learnt to write Chinese with his right hand, while remaining left-handed writing English.
He is fascinated by Old China hands like Werner (who had been in China for half a century when Pamela was murdered) and brings his vanished world back to vivid, pulsating life. But it is the storytelling flair that marks Midnight in Peking so highly above the run-of-the-mill true crime stories: with its false leads and twists, and the care taken never to reveal anything ahead of his protagonists, it sucks the reader in like the best fiction.
Exceptionally, this is a story that also casts light on the kind of characters who normally live only in darkened margins of history: White Russian gangsters, half-Korean brothel madams, hermaphrodite cabaret stars, prostitutes on the run from the authorities.
It is these demi-mondaines who will be the subjects of his next two books. First, there will be a short book giving more of the back stories of some of the shadier characters in Midnight in Peking. Then, he’ll switch to the city he knows best: Shangai. “It’s going to be girls, gangs, jazz, sex, the badlands, casinos. Everyone has an image of the Shanghai between 1939 and 1941. It was the Chicago of the East, a real wild town. You’ve got to imagine the whole international concession is surrounded by the Japanese but they didn’t invade until after Pearl Harbour in 1941. Until then, there’s this wild party going on in the Bund (European central area) while outside the Chinese are fighting for survival. Inside the Bund, the foreigners can’t escape and there is no effective policing, but they all have a lot of money – and that’s a hugely combustible mix. Even if you don’t get all of the history, I hope you’ll get a sense of a world falling apart, as in Isherwood’s Cabaret. Everyone knows things are going to be bad – though nobody can imagine quite how bad they actually will be – so they party like there’s no tomorrow. “
He gives me his card, this gangly Londoner whose day job is flying around China, trying to work out its future while writing riveting books about its past. “Next time you’re in Shanghai, look me up,” he says, giving me his card. Next time I’m in Shanghai, I most certainly will.
• Midnight in China by Paul French is published by Viking, price £14.99. It will be Radio 4’s Book of the week next week. See also midnightinpeking.com
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