Review: Midnight In Peking by Paul French


Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China
Penguin Books
Published by The Penguin Group

Paul French, a historian and an expert on China, takes us back to Peking in 1937. The Japanese are surrounding the city. Superstitions are running high. The Chinese believe in things like the “dreaded fox spirits”.

Paula Werner was just a school girl, a bit headstrong and free thinking, living with her father in Peking unless she was away at boarding school. Her father was a scholar and a retired British Consul. She had gone out to spend time with friends but never returns home.

Then a body was found murdered, mutilated, organs removed, it even appeared the killer tried to cut her arm completely off and her face is almost unrecognizable.  The body is later identified as Paula Werner.

Because of her father’s British connection the investigation became quite a circus. Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis is brought in from Tientsin to assist the Chinese detectives but both governments really tie their hands to where, who and how they can investigate. With the suspect list growing and few actual clues, will the crime be solved before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever.

Dollycas’s Thoughts

This is a very well researched story. It is a time in history that is pretty unknown in general history of the world taught in school in the U.S.  French presents the information methodically but I almost felt overloaded by all of it. The lengthy descriptions of buildings, streets and alleys.  The history of the time set forth in paragraph and after paragraph of dates and events and their effect on the nation. While all very interesting I felt the story of Pamela Werner got a bit lost at times. The roadblocks met by the detectives were immense and removed the expected drama of searching out the killer. Her father’s continued dedication to getting  justice for his daughter was unwavering. His need to employ private detectives to find the truth, but never enough evidence to arrest or convict was heartbreaking.

I know the author had to follow the facts and this is a true telling. It took a great effort for me to finish this book.  History enthusiasts will appreciate all the detail but everyday readers of true crime and mystery will find themselves like me skimming over the pages to get to a solution that never really comes because of the restrictions/corruption by both the Chinese and British governments.  French probably did identify the real killer but because of the obstacles in place at the time of the crime and the lack of crucial information the murder is still unresolved.  The outcome is not the authors fault as he cannot rewrite history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Receiving a complimentary copy in no way reflected my review of this book. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

6 thoughts on “Review: Midnight In Peking by Paul French

  1. It sounds like this might be a good book for someone who is interested in the history rather than as a murder-mystery true crime novel.
    I read The Zookeeper’s Wife and the first 59 pages were an information dump. I wouldn’t have continued reading except that it was chosen by our book club. It turned out to be a great book. I wonder why the editors didn’t steer the author toward removing some of the endless descriptions.

  2. Thanks Dollycas, I have been very interested in this book, and you know I think there are indeed some readers who revel in long descriptions and tracts of seemingly irrelevant information (particularly historical dressing and genuine thoroughly researched historical scene-setting) and I’m one of them. I am for example a great fan of Caleb Carr. It doesn’t make me somehow more ‘serious’ or erudite; it’s just a taste, a taste I’m not allways in the mood to indulge but that like with Erik Larson’s ‘The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America’ with its discursive chapters on the history of the Chicago World’s Fair, architecture and American popular culture and the creation of the Ferris Wheel is sometimes good reading fun. I have been thinking that French’s book would be right up my cobbled street. I even had a little glimmer of hope that you were giving it away.

    1. Margot, It will be included in a giveaway very soon. I know if we all liked the exact same thing it would be a really boring world. My husband is a history person, loves reading anything to do with the world back in time. He would probably love this book.

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