Book 18; Continent: Asia

Book 18; Continent: Asia

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

  • 260 pages (Acknowledgements, etc. begin page 247)
  • This engaging true crime story will hold your attention even in a noisy food court or while the kids are at practice.

Generally, the “true crime” genre isn’t my cup of tea. Writers sometimes take liberties with supposed dialogue, gestures or motives in the name of preparing a good narrative. Or, maybe I’ve just rolled my eyes at too many cheesy cable crime shows to take it very seriously. Still, this story and its setting intrigued me. Prepared to take the text with a grain of salt, I bought the book for a look at “the last days of Old China” according to the title.

In 1937 Peking, the Boxer Rebellion is still new enough to make the city’s Western population nervous—the Boxers had laid siege to foreign residents inside the Legation Quarter, the part of town designated for foreigners and diplomats. The Japanese threaten military conquest in northern China, where Peking lies, but ruler Chiang Kai-shek may have abandoned them to their fate by moving his capital to Nanking. Meanwhile, the Communists are still working to gain power throughout China. It’s a time of flux, and French is careful to build the anxious mood of the city’s populace into the tone of his work.

The story opens as an old Chinese man finds the mutilated corpse of a popular young British woman near the Fox Tower, long thought to be haunted. Her heart has been torn out, and her face is slashed almost beyond recognition. Technically, the gruesome crime falls under Chinese jurisdiction, so the Chinese police lead the investigation. However, the British assign their own police detective from out of town as an observer. If this story had been a modern crime novel, much of the story from this point would have focused on forensics. However, this emerging science has less to offer 1930s China. Instead, interviews will play the main role in reconstructing the crime and catching the killer or killers. To that end, Chief Inspector Han and DCI Dennis will need access to Chinese and European alike, but political and diplomatic roadblocks get in their way.

The British community is keen to see the murderer identified as some Chinese occultist—too many rumors persist inside the Legation Quarter about the use of human organs in Chinese mysticism, as well-to-do Europeans remain willfully ignorant of Chinese traditional medicine. However, none of the evidence supports this notion: the girl’s killer is almost certainly a Westerner, a likelihood that complicates the investigation considerably. Poor rickshaw drivers are pretty much disposable for Chinese criminal justice, but a European with diplomatic connections will likely prove unreachable.

Furthermore, the victim’s father is an eccentric figure whose onetime career as a judge has made him unpopular with the current authorities. The police are discouraged—and eventually prevented—from meeting with him. He becomes a major figure in the investigation, however, defying British authorities and using his connections elsewhere to examine the evidence himself. On his own, he brings to light some evidence that the police could not or would not collect or consider.

What kept me reading this story was French’s careful use of detail. He seldom inserted dialog, and when he did, he offered a source for it at the end of the book. Some gestures are invented (e.g., smoothing the victim’s clothing at the scene of the crime), but this story relies on larger scale actions that have been documented. While his imagination is kept in professional check with these sorts of details, he allows it to fill the reader’s senses with various setting descriptions.

His setting proves rich with historical detail. He creates tableaux of the genteel Morrison Avenue, where well-to-do women of various nationalities browse foreign department store windows or Chinese nannies take tiny European children out for some air. Peking’s Legation Quarter is in vague competition with its counterpart in Shanghai, bustling port city, for chic fashion and nightlife, yet the Western newspapers even in the posh hotel lobbies are weeks old. French tells us that the foreigners who can afford to live well here are paying to live in a fragile bubble. Outside the Legation Quarter, markets roar with bustling activity among the various stalls of meats, vegetables, prepared foods and livestock. Then too, French also describes the seedier parts of Old China, the Badlands where White Russians (Russians who had supported the tsars during the Russian Revolution) and other displaced and impoverished Westerners mix with the local underworld. In those days, China was an ideal place to disappear from your past in the Western world.

Although I still don’t consider myself a “true crime” fan, I found this book engaging and well-researched. Not everyone can pull off a narrative format to present facts drawn from fairly dry sources, but French has managed to do it here without leaning on invented dialog or other quasi-fictional crutches. I have another “true crime” book I’m saving for Halloween, and now I am looking forward to it just a bit more. Hopefully, it too will represent the genre well.

Photo credit: Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections / Foter / CC BY

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