Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

I have been reading a whole lot of articles and books about China in the 1930s, research for the book I’m writing this month for Camp NaNoWriMo. While I was going through different books set in China during that time, I came across this one. A true crime, a shocking murder that had rattled the world.

And I had never heard of it.

Let me just say, during my teen years I was obsessed with true crimes. Any documentary or book I could get my hands on, I did. However, I had never heard of this case before, which surprised me as it is similar in many ways to my favorite serial killer, Jack the Ripper.

For reference, the full title is actually Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China.

Release: April, 2012

Synopsis: Peking (modern Bejing) is a hub of wealth, opium dens, and rumors in 1937. The old China is on the edge of collapse, as Communists, nationalists, warlords, and gangsters fight for power from within as the Japanese move ever-closer to invasion. In this world of turmoil, the body of young British girl Pamela Werner is discovered murdered and mutilated below the superstition-ridden Fox Tower. Two detectives—one British and one Chinese—work together to try to solve one of the most notorious unsolved murders in China’s history.

Book Review

Let me just say, I love when a historical book is filled with contextual details. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. And this book is filled to the brimming with historical details of the current state of China in 1937. But it is in this that often times I had issues. While I thought this was going to be a true crime novel, it certainly feels more like a historical biography, giving more focus to China as a whole and less to the crime itself. This book is so slow-moving I just ended up skimming information that repeated what was previously explained.

I have a general working knowledge of the state of the China at the time, and so this book didn’t give me any extra information I didn’t already know. So, I will confess, I read this book more for the murder than anything else.

But I really found myself struggling through this book. In fact, it took me weeks to read, because I would read a few pages, get bored, and then put it down for a couple days. It was that bad.

I’m not saying this is a horrible book, but it gives the reader little progression in the case. There are a few brilliant scenes to read, like the examination of Pamela’s body early on and the scene where Sun (a ricksaw driver) explains that he drove two men and a young, unconscious woman past the Fox Tower. However, most of the scenes seemed completely pointless. Let me just say, I know that in a real police investigation, things can be very boring. It’s all about process and law and facts and evidence. I tried watching a few full murder trials in my life and boy are they repetitive.

What I’m trying to say about this book is that it’s filled with a lot of details about the case and the history, but if you want an interesting book, this is more like reading through hundreds of pages of legal documents. To a lawyer, that might sound great, but to the average person, it would be incredibly boring. That’s what I feel like with this book.
I think if the book had been an hour documentary on TV or a short news article, it would have been amazing, but there just wasn’t enough interesting information to create an entire book for it.

This book also employed the “creative” non-fiction I talked about in my last post. That is, the scenes where real people think about things and talk about it. This author could not know what the people were thinking. In that, this book bothered me even more. Why add those scenes if not to make the book even longer?

At about the halfway mark, I completely admit I starting skimming. Most of the second half of the book was explaining how the case went cold and how Pamela’s father hunted for her killers until he tracked down a group of men who were plausible suspects.

However, no one was ever charged and the case was never solved. So, the end. Right?

Is it Accurate?

The ending felt like a conspiracy to me, going from telling what happened to the author’s personal theories of the guilty party, similar to a lot of books written about Jack the Ripper (where the author theorizes about who might be the killer). It got me curious about how accurate this book is.

Werner had a theory of his daughter’s death, which claimed that a man by the name of Prentice had orchestrated her horrible demise. Paul French, the author of this book, seems to agree with him. However, other people claim that documentary evidence contradicted the theory.

In the end, I don’t think this murder will ever be solved. Most everything is gone, even the burial site where Pamela’s body was buried is now a modern road in Beijing. Most alive at the time are long dead. To be honest, it is a sad tale of a young girl’s life cut tragically short.

Conclusion

I understand the author did a lot of research in writing this book, but in a sense I think it is his imagination which ruined this book.

He added a lot of theorizing and fictionalized “creative” scenes within the work. He spent so much time with inconsequential details.

In the end, this isn’t a bad book. If you know nothing about China during this time and like detailed historical fiction books, you might enjoy this. But to me it fell a bit flat.

What are your thoughts about true crime books in general? Do you find them a bit tedious? Have you read this book or is it something you’d be curious to read? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Midnight in Peking by Paul French

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