By Ben Martin
Special to Magazine
January 17, 2013
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING:
HOW THE MURDER OF A YOUNG
THE LAST DAYS OF OLD CHINA
By Paul French
Penguin Books, $26; 260 pp.
On Jan. 8, 1937, dawn revealed the mutilated body of a young woman at the Fox Gate in Peking, China. Her clothes were ripped, one side of her face smashed, her ribcage pried open and internal organs removed. From an expensive watch on her wrist and a membership card to the French Club ice-skating rink, she was identified as Pamela Werner, adopted daughter of Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, former British consul and a noted scholar of Chinese history and customs.
Col. Han Shih-ching, chief of police for the South East Section of Peking, led the investigation. His liaison to the foreign and diplomatic community was Detective Chief Inspector Richard Harry Dennis, chief of police for the British Concession in Tientsin, where Pamela had been a boarding student. Their superiors urged a rapid investigation. Peking was a city on the brink, anticipating an invasion from Japanese forces which had already taken Manchuria and the northeastern regions of China. Press accounts of this horrific murder generated uncontrollable rumor and fear.
Within Peking, the two-mile-square Legation Quarter manned its battle stations. Here, most foreigners with money and status had their embassies, consulates, offices, hotels, clubs, houses and apartments. Some few among the elite, scholars like Werner and like Edgar Snow and his wife Helen, chose to live just outside this enclave to better comprehend the China they were studying. Down and out foreigners, mostly White Russian refugees from the Soviet Union along with western Europeans and Americans who had worn out their welcome everywhere else, lived outside because they had no other choice.
The foreign colony insisted that Pamela’s murderers had to be Chinese because to accuse any of them was to risk catastrophic disgrace — or in Chinese terms, “lose face.”
The previous afternoon, Pamela had gone ice-skating with friends, riding off on her bicycle after promising that she would be back by early evening. When she did not return, Werner sounded the alarm and spent the night searching. He came upon her body just after the police had covered it with a bamboo mat. From the outset, the case presented puzzles. The lack of blood at the Fox Gate meant that she had been killed elsewhere. The expensive watch on her wrist ruled out robbery. The extensive mutilation defied explanation. Despite sensational newspaper stories, not a single credible witness came forward.
Further inquiry only added riddles. Although almost 19, Pamela was still in school because her impudence had led to expulsion from the Legation schools in Peking. She was said to be wild and had numerous suitors, none of them acceptable to her father. At age 72, Werner was old enough to be her grandfather, and his wife had died a decade and a half earlier under suspicious circumstances from an overdose of the barbiturate Veronal. After a number of false starts, Han and Dennis looked into a group of dissipated expatriate westerners who had connections to White Russian brothels and allegedly staged sex parties. Legation Quarter authorities, the British foremost, flatly refused to permit the investigation to head in this direction and at a formal inquest ruled the case closed without solution.
Werner then spent his life’s savings on detectives to find Pamela’s murderers himself. Despite the long-expected Japanese invasion, despite official interference from his own nation in whose foreign service he had served, he came up with the answers and the proof. When he sent a copy of his files to the British Foreign Office, the only reaction was hostility toward his criticism of the Legation Quarter authorities.
Werner’s correspondence lay forgotten in the British archives until Paul French discovered it while looking into this sensational murder that terrified Peking before greater disasters overtook the city. He had stumbled upon a great mystery and a great morality tale, filled with heroes and villains, the backdrop of dark intrigue, the context of complexity.
A great storyteller could have made the account of Pamela Werner’s murder and the discovery of her body at Fox Gate an unforgettable book. Paul French is not a great storyteller: his pace is too slow; he fails to single out critical detail; he mutes righteous indignation. Even so, his Midnight at Peking is a compelling book. Murder will out.