Book review: Midnight In Peking, Paul French

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Viking, £12.99

‘I’VE been alone all my life,” Pamela Werner told her best friend before cycling off into the darkness. “I’m afraid of nothing. And Peking is the safest city in the world.”

On the following morning of 8 January, 1937, her mutilated body was found on waste ground haunted by wild dogs, bats, and, superstition had it, “fox spirits” roaming restlessly in search of victims. Born in the Year of the Sheep, the orphan Pamela had died at the end of the Year of the Rat, her teenage body eviscerated, her heart cut out.

This murder of a white woman, an untouchable laowei, sent shock waves through a city already bracing itself for invasion by the Japanese Army. As the Year of the Ox approached, with its promise of neverending problems, the charmed life of the westerners, which had survived the Boxer rebellion, now faced decimation by the Land of the Rising Sun. The daily whirl of cocktails and tiffins would soon shudder to a stop.

In this brilliant book, Paul French has researched and reconstructed with verve a crime story that turns out to owe nothing to the supernatural. Through the eyes of Inspector Dennis and his Chinese colleague, Colonel Han, we descend into the Badlands and its rookeries of vice, populated by suppurating beggars, painted madams, depraved American dentists and White Russians wandering aimlessly in frayed tsarist uniforms.

Amidst the surrounding hills, western libertines indulge in nudist escapades and hunts for animal and human prey. It is a doomed world characterised by impermanence, where inhabitants seem to have lost their moral compass.

As in all good police procedurals, there are obstacles to the investigation: not only the shifty suspects and over-talkative detectives, but also pompous British diplomats concerned not to lose face in the political and sexual powder keg of Peking.

Nothing, also, is quite what it seems: Pamela’s headmaster in the elite grammar school of Tientsin is unmasked as a sexual predator and returns to England in disgrace, while his apparently quiet and serious pupil increasingly lives a double life in the alluring lights of Peking.

Westerners in denial, and fed on too much Fu Manchu, look to orientalist clichés for an explanation: organ theft or ritual mutilation by Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police. To the British Legation’s relief, the investigation peters out and concludes with “murder by persons unknown”.

But they had underestimated the energy and intelligence of the sinologist ETC Werner, Pamela’s 70-year-old adoptive father, himself a former diplomat and barrister. Bearing a wound that cannot heal, and, malicious rumour had it, a man who attracted death and destruction, Werner devotes his last days and substantial bank account to seeking out his daughter’s murderers.

According to the Chinese proverb, “as the water recedes, the rock appears’. In a bizarre twist, the austere academic receives crucial help from a White Russian hermaphrodite, cabaret star and drug dealer called Shura.

The solution to this murder, the father writes to a disbelieving Foreign Office, “is to be sought in the haunts of the sadist sexualists of the Peking foreign underworld clique”. But justice will not be done: soon Japanese soldiers will be strutting through the streets and the low-lives of the Badlands slip from view. Werner will join one of his daughter’s suspected murderers in an internment camp.

Only Shura the hermaphrodite seems equipped to survive this turbulent and deadly epoch, before he/she is swallowed up by the USSR. As for Pamela, her lonely grave now lies somewhere deep under the Second Ring Road of the bustling new Beijing. Her case files have lain deep for decades in a Foreign Office vault that withstood the Blitz.

It is to French’s immense credit that he has managed not only to tell a gripping tale, but, with genuine human sympathy, rescued from oblivion one of the countless victims of the cruelty of history.