On the Trail of Midnight in Peking (China Eye, June 21, 2016)

By Tamara Treichel 

I recently read a gripping true-crime story that took place in Beijing, Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China. A young Englishwoman called Pamela Werner was brutally murdered in Beijing (formerly known as Peking) on a cold January day in 1937. Pamela was the nineteen-year-old daughter of famous Sinologist E.T.C. Werner.

While first flipping through the book, two grainy photos caught my eye: one of Pamela playing netball in the Tientsin (Tianjin) Grammar School and another one of her looking like a movie star on the silver screen, the glamorous “studio portrait.” The photos haunted me, and, I admit, played a role in my buying the book. As a current expat in China’s capital myself, I was also curious about expat life in Beijing several decades ago. Plus, who can resist a good mystery?

French unveils the protagonists of the story in a mosaic-like way, tile by tile. As his book reveals, Pamela appeared to have at least two sides ‒ plain-Jane school girl and a more worldly, free-spirited side that liked to explore. Moreover, she had one foot in Western culture and one foot in Chinese culture, as she spoke Chinese fluently and had local friends and acquaintances. Her father was also immersed in both cultures, and had an adventurous streak, going on expeditions to search for Genghis Khan’s tomb. But unlike his outgoing teenage daughter, Werner was stuffy and led a hermit-like existence upon retiring from the British diplomatic service, devoting himself exclusively to his scholarly studies on Chinese culture instead of socializing with Beijing’s other expats. Werner has secured an ongoing legacy for himself as his books are still available on Amazon: Myths and Legends of China, China of the Chinese, Chinese Weapons, A Dictionary of Chinese Mythology.

Pamela was Werner’s adopted daughter, murdered in a crime that remains unsolved almost 80 years later ‒ officially at least. French, an old “China hand” and British expat who has lived many years in Shanghai, offers a solution to the mystery after unearthing Werner’s meticulous and conclusive research into his daughter’s murder and including it in his book. French relied on Werner’s numerous notes to the Foreign Office in London describing his hard-nosed private investigation after the case was officially closed in July 1937. Werner’s research, French wrote, brought “more to light than the official inquest ever did,” and French appears to agree with Werner’s identification of the killer. With the grip of a Doberman Pinscher, Werner refused to let go of his daughter’s murder case after both the Chinese and the British failed to close it. Continue reading