In his new book, “Midnight in Peking,” Paul French solves the 1937 murder of foreign resident Pamela Werner, and brings to light the truths about expat life in a city on the brink of Japanese invasion.
Your new book “Midnight in Peking” just came out. What can you tell us about it?
This book represents nearly six years of investigation and research and then a further year’s solid writing. It’s the true-life story of the 1937 murder, in Beijing, of a 19-year-old English woman called Pamela Werner. She was horrifically killed and her body dumped by the Fox Tower (Dongbianmen Gate, 东便门). It was the most sensational murder the city had ever seen. Her murder was investigated by both a Chinese detective and a Scotland Yard copper together – a pretty unique event. They were tireless and tried hard but never solved the crime and then the Japanese invaded and occupied Beijing and the official investigation was halted. But they did reveal some pretty sordid scandals and secrets about the foreign community in Beijing, both the uptight crowd of diplomats and businesspeople and the lowlife world of Peking’s (largely now forgotten) white criminal underclass.
You first read about this murder in a footnote. What was it about the footnote that captivated you?
I was reading a fairly dry biography of the famous journalist Edgar Snow who, of course, is arguably the man who introduced the world to Chairman Mao with his book “Red Star Over China.” There was a footnote saying that Pamela had been a neighbor of Edgar and his wife Helen and that Helen was scared at the time. The suspects included a mysterious “love cult,” the girl’s father and various criminals from the nearby “Badlands” area of bars and brothels, but the crime was never solved. It also mentioned that many superstitious Chinese thought it was the work of fox spirits that lived in the Fox Tower. I went to sleep but in the morning all I could think of was this short footnote and Pamela and that basically began my obsession with the case.
How did you go about researching the case? What was the most difficult or interesting part about this kind of research?
I started with the newspapers from the time, which covered the murder on their front pages for weeks. A murdered foreign girl was a very, very big deal in 1937. Then I found the autopsy report, various other official records and finally, in one of those “eureka” moments that researchers occasionally get, I found a stash of previously unused documents in the UK’s National Archives at Kew in London. However, perhaps the most interesting part was managing to track down about half a dozen people who were still alive who either went to school with Pamela in Tianjin or knew her and her father in Beijing. They were all in their late 80s and early 90s, scattered across the globe from Oxford to Singapore to Toronto, but all remembered the murder as if it were yesterday and all have been massively helpful and eager to know if I managed to find anything new to solve the case. Pamela has remained alive to them down the years.
When did you realize you really had a breakthrough and could confirm who the killer was?
In the National Archives when the librarians gave me an old green Foreign Office document box that had been in the cellars of the archives and really was, I swear, dusty and looked unopened since 1943. It was 150 pages or so of close typed and handwritten notes that revealed a private investigation by Pamela’s father that continued after the official police investigation was ended and while Beijing was occupied by the Japanese. By cross-referencing this new information with the police reports, the medical reports, the newspaper accounts, the few people alive who remembered the events and a few facts I had been able to find out that weren’t known in 1937, I realized that, to my satisfaction at least, we had a case that proved who Pamela’s murderers were and how they had escaped justice during the chaos and tumult of the Second World War.
This a true story, but reads like a gripping novel. What techniques did you use to keep the story vivid and flowing?
I wrote a first draft as a straight non-fiction book but then realized that it didn’t quite work somehow – it wasn’t personal enough. I went back and tried to rewrite the story as if it were a novel, to try and make the characters come alive and the locations really feel real. I was pretty inspired by books like John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia,” both literary recreations of real murders that used the techniques of crime fiction books to heighten the tension and story but ultimately invent nothing. The timeline is real and all the dialogue is real, there are no invented characters or locations – the book is footnoted at the back if you want to check the sources. But I wanted readers to empathize with Pamela, to be outraged that she was needlessly murdered in cold blood and to want to see her killer named at last.
What are you trying to accomplish with this book, bringing the victim, Pamela’s murder to light?
Just about every crime novel, every Hollywood murder movie and every TV cop show ends with killers being brought to justice and punished. When murder is not avenged, killers not caught and punished I think it threatens to upend our view of the world. Pamela’s killers did get away with it; they went on to live lives and keep their secrets. Pamela died before turning 20. I think it’s important, even now 75 years later, to right the record and for us to at least remember Pamela’s name and face. We can’t give her justice but we can at least say that she’s no longer forgotten.
Where are you from originally and what initially attracted you to write about China? Were you a writer before you came here?
I’m a Londoner born and bred and have been writing about China’s history for over a decade now. It’s always been an academic interest, a hobby really. However, when I decided to retell Pamela Werner’s story I realized pretty quickly that it would require every ounce of literary skill I could summon. I’d never really thought about writing before in that way – as something evocative, atmospheric. I just hope I’ve managed to recreate a little of the world of Peking in the winter of 1937.
Tell us a bit about your blog and China Rhyming. Will you be solving any other mysteries soon？
ChinaRhyming is a blog that looks at the history of China and its interactions with the west and foreigners. My specialist subject, I suppose, is the foreign community in China between the wars. I live in Shanghai, which obviously has a special role in that history. The blog’s motto is Mark Twain’s famous observation that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. China and foreigners are interacting again; it’s not a repeat of the 1920s or the 1930s but there are echoes, and if we understand them a bit better we might appreciate now a bit more.
Look for more on “Midnight in Peking” in the Sept 2011 issue of The World of Chinese. For more intrigue in early 20th century China click here. If you want another expats view of China at the time, click here.