Friday, June 29, 2012

Midnight in Peking

January 8, 1937. The body of a young white woman is found in a ditch near the Fox Tower area of Peking. She was badly mutilated, her heart, kidneys and lungs were removed. Her platinum watch remained, however, near the area long believed to be haunted. So starts the book Midnight in Peking, a true story of a brutal murder and an equally brutal search for her killer.

The book starts with a detailed political history of China from its early days to the time of the crime, the late 1930's. Japan is preparing to invade China. There are still British imperialists living in a sequestered area of Peking. French and Italian legations occupy the area as well. Few westerners live outside their respective country's legation but Pamela Werner and her father did. Pamela, Werner's adopted daughter was a loner, spoke fluent Mandarin and was given free reign in the city by her father. She came and went pretty much as she pleased resulting in her expulsion from several schools.

The night watchman who found Pamela's body was a local man. He ran a mile to the security phone to call the local police and then the coroner. By the time those men arrived Pamela's body was so mutilated it look like she had been ravaged by the wild dogs of the area. With no identification except for the watch, and her coloring, the police had to search for her identity. At the same time, Werner was reporting his daughter missing to the local British authorities.

The book continues through the story of the murder investigation, branching off to include some background about the local Chinese politics and the local British ex-pat situation. Japan was preparing to invade. Britain was loosing control and the foreigners were getting worried that their insular way of living was being threatened. Foreigners were pretty much left alone by the local police. Laws that applied outside the legations did not necessarily apply with in them and they did no necessarily apply to businesses frequented by foreigners.

I found this book fascinating for several reasons. First it takes place during interesting times. Politics in Asia in the 1930's were in a state of flux and they provide a backdrop for the story. Second the story gives some insight into the lives of westerners living through those times. And lastly it is the story of a father's search for the killer of his daughter in the face of government indifference and corruption. Well written with great historical detail it was one of the best books I've read this year.

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