This spring Midnight in Peking (Penguin, 2012) by Paul French was one of the most highly anticipated books among expat circles in Hong Kong and China. And as luck would have it, the Kindle version came out the night I arrived in Hong Kong. I was in the middle of something else, so didn’t get around to it until after my return.
1930s Shanghai has been done so many times, it’s become somewhat of a cliche (one I can’t resist), but few novels have been set primarily in Beijing (called Peking back then) during the same period. Paul French has done a fabulous job of bringing the reader to that very dark and desperate place.
The story opens on a cold winter night in Peking, up on the Fox Tower, an isolated structure outside the foreign legation (where the expats mainly lived). A young, blonde woman’s lifeless body was found. But when the police arrived and turned her over, they discovered she’d been disemboweled like a hunting prize. Who could have committed such a crime? And who was this woman?
Early on we learn it was the teenage daughter of E.T.C. Werner, an old China hand who was widowed years earlier and was raising his daughter, Pamela, alone. Werner, as he’s known throughout the story, was an old crank and somewhat scorned upon by the expat community. A former British consul, he kept to himself.
Pamela was back in Peking on winter break from her school in Tientsin (now Tianjin). What most acquaintances didn’t know was that Werner and his daughter were planning to move to England very soon, even though Pamela was fluent in Mandarin and Werner’s work and passion were based on his decades in China. Something about a scandal involving Pamela in Tientsin.
And then she’s dead.
Midnight in Peking is a dark, depressing story that fits the eery mood in Peking at that time. It takes place in the late 1930s, after Japan has annexed Manchuria. The story is a remarkable one in that the British and Chinese police worked together–one of the very few times that happened.
The last part of the book moves quickly and reminds me of the final scene in the movie Casino, in which the feds round up the mafia, one person at time. While not every criminal in this story was punished for his crime, this book in itself does justice by showing the strength and determination of one father who wouldn’t rest until he found the truth.