Wednesday, 19 April 2017
Midnight in Peking - Paul French
I can't fathom why I hadn't heard of this book before stumbling upon it in my local library. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a big hit for John Berendt twenty years ago - they even went on to make a crappy movie - and this book has obvious similarities (real-life murder, cultural bubble, kinky sex and the word midnight in the title). I won't say French's book is better but it is definitely just as good.
It will come as no surprise that the setting here is Peking. The year is (just) 1937. Russian Christmas, January 7. The bubble is the expat community in what was, temporarily, China's second city. Chiang Kai Shek is losing his grip on power and the Japanese are about to invade. A young woman is found butchered in the shadow of the historic Fox Tower. She is Pamela Werner, adopted daughter of E T C Werner, former British consul and leading Sinologist, a man who has devoted his life to understanding Chinese culture.
Unfortunately for Werner, he has fallen from favour with the British Legation, which refuses to permit the Chinese police to investigate in their jurisdiction. A British inspector, Richard Dennis, ex-Scotland Yard, is seconded from another district to assist Inspector Han, but is expressly forbidden to have contact with Werner.
The British, it turns out, have secrets to hide. Pamela, a girl with problems, was still a pupil at Tientsin Grammar School, boarding with headmaster Sydney Yeates who has very recently been sent home because parents, including Werner, complained about his enthusiasm for thrashing. In Peking Pamela likes to be seen as the sophisticated young woman she ought to be - she is twenty years old, after all. She has admirers. On January 7 she goes ice skating with her girlfriends, and disappears on her way home.
The assumption is that it is a very un-Chinese murder. The killer must either be living in one of the many foreign legations or in the Badlands, a red-light district frequented by overseas riff-raff, decandent playboys and hordes of White Russian emigres fallen on hard times.
It is the Badlands, inevitably, which grab our attention. The most useful contact made by any investigator is Shura, a White Russian of indeterminate gender, who alternates as call girl and raffish pimp. One of his sidelines is providing naked girl dance groups for parties in the apartment of a seedy American dentist who also runs a nudist colony in the hills above Peking.
The hero of the book is definitely E T C Warner himself, a dry as dust scholar in his early seventies, who nobody likes. It is French's great achievement that we come to love the old man who doggedly refuses to let the authorities close the file on his dead daughter. When the official investigation runs out of steam, Werner hires his own investigators. When the Japanese come, he presses on alone. Later he is interned in a horrific prison camp. Still he persists. He survives the war - and still he goes on, not resting until he finally expires at the grand age of eighty-nine.
It is Werner's account that forms the basis of French's book but it is the demented cultural hotchpotch of prewar Peking that brings the story alive, and that is all down to French, his massive research and his storytelling flair.