Friday, March 13, 2015

"Midnight in Peking" by Paul French

"Midnight in Peking" is subtitled, "How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China."  Set in 1937, it is a true crime story about the gruesome murder of a 19 year old girl who was the daughter of a former English consul to China, veteran China hand, almost lifelong Peking resident, and dedicated academic.  Based on extensive research that does what would seem like the almost impossible task of recreating something that occurred during that chaotic time, Paul French fashions a highly readable but at points almost too detailed book.  At its best it is compelling, almost spellbinding, reading and in its soft spots it goes into such historical and cityscape detail, repetitively at times, that the writer seems to take more joy in his research than he does in the mystery story that he unveils.

The book is characterized as non-fiction, but when the thoughts of characters are included in the narrative it could also be called historical fiction.  Which one is not really important except that it suggests that the book is a bit more ambitious than one that is strictly old school non-fiction.

When a book starts out with the discovery of a young woman's body being found near a tower that the local Chinese viewed as haunted, her death caused by multiple stab wounds that culminated in her body being cut open, her rib cage being pulled apart, and her internal organs removed, there is obviously some explanation needed.  Once she is identified, only because she was still wearing an expensive watch that few could have afforded, the anguish begins for her father and the community but no solution to the crime is forthcoming in the allotted 20 days for discovery in their system at the time.  The case remains open with few leads, and one Chinese and one English detective continue working together in a futile search for her killer or killers until they give up without results.

Her dour but brilliant elderly father doesn't give up as he relentlessly continues the investigation alone and he finally comes to some answers through his tenacious research and investigation.  Almost all is revealed as this story unfolds at the end.

The backdrop for this story is fascinating.  It is the time when the Japanese, the Nationalists, and the Communists are all competing for territory.  The Japanese are on the verge of a takeover of Peking, the communists are a rising threat, and the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek have retreated south but remain a potent force.  Writer French provides significant historical detail on the developments during this period, interesting reading here.

Peking is run under an old China social order that is separate from the privileged foreign government representatives and business types as well as the many refugees of sorts - White Russians running from the Bolsheviks, Jews coming from Europe for supposed safety, and vagrants of all nationalities looking for a low cost lifestyle of opium and sex.  French seems to delight in knowing every nook and cranny of this 1937 city.

Not a book for everyone, but "Midnight in Peking" did well here.  A section of photographs is included which reinforces the reality of the book.

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