We caught up with Paul French who was in town recently for the Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival 2012. After 5-6 years of research and 6 months of dedicated writing, he completed the chilling book “Midnight in Peking“. The non-fiction book gets to the bottom of the murder mystery, revisiting the harrowing murder of 19 year old Pamela Werner in 1937.
We highly recommend this book on your next trip to Beijing and if you stop by dongbianmen 东便门 while doing the walking tour, don’t forget to pop by Red Gate Gallery housed in the tower. You can also listen to a podcast here.
In this literary non-fiction, how well did you get to know Pamela Werner?
Well, really well. There’s nothing in this book that was invented, none of the people, the places the clues were invented. When I first read about the murder, Pamela Warner was 19 year old British girl who had been murdered in 1937 and I just thought that’s interesting. It was just an interesting little story until I was looking through the newspapers in 1937 and there was her picture of her taken in a studio and at that point she became kind of real to me and it was at that point, I decided to chase after the story to see what I could find out. I tried to get all the police reports, the autopsy reports and find everyone that knew her at that time.
The Chinese gave me nothing. The good thing was the case was investigated by a Chinese detective and a British detective. At that time, that was quite unique for both English and Chinese detective to work together, so all the investigation and reports were done in English and Chinese.These two records, one sits in the Chinese archives and the other in the UK archives.
Fortunately, everything was reproduced in the British archives.
Did you have to make up a substantial part of characterisation to propel the plot along given the cultural and historical circumstance that surrounded the murder?
Absolutely nothing is made up. I worked on the basis of what other people told me what she was like, I worked on the basis of what Pamela had written about herself, her diaries, what was written about her in the newspapers and quotes that people gave.
Based on your extensive research, could you tell us how different was 1930s Peking different from 1930s glitzy glamorous Shanghai?
Peking wasn’t the capital then and yes the locals and foreigners were segregated and there really wasn’t alot of crossover. It was the same in Shanghai, there’s the badlands in Shanghai, there’s the foreign badlands and the Chinese badlands. The badlands I write about is not bada hutong which is the Chinese badlands. All of that was segregated.
What were your greatest challenges of writing the book?
The most difficult one was of course you’re dealing with criminals—pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers. People involved in the pornography industry and all that and these people don’t talk or leave records, so you have to go back to the police records and try to find out what you can about them. Shipping records, passport application records and things like that. The few places where they leave traces of themselves. Some of the pictures I showed are of white Russian women who danced in the nightclubs in the badlands in the 30s and some of them had daughters and grandchildren who told their stories.
I looked for names, tried to find out where people went after the revolution and where they settled.
The most telling and interesting piece of evidence that lead you to your conclusion?
With all the police records from the investigation and when it appeared to be clear that it was a case of a European killing a European, the British government got very nervous, they didn’t want the Europeans and British in China to lose face. It was a very tense period as the Japanese were about to attack, so it became a very political issue. They told the police not to talk to Pamela’s father as he was a former diplomat and they were worried about that. When they arrested one man, who was a dentist, Pamela’s father did not know about that and that he denied knowing Pamela, when he did, he was her dentist. He was later able to produce a receipt of Pamela’s visit to that dentist. Because of the interference of the British government at that point, no one talked to each other and if people had been less paranoid about ‘losing face’ then the case might have been solved at that time.
Later on when the Japanese invaded Peking, the investigation had to stop and then it became a private investigation by her father, but it got stuck because of official interference and they argued about the jurisdiction and the bureaucracy which meant that it couldn’t be solved.
Interview and blog content by Juliana Loh, Social Media Manager, Swire Hotels and editor-in-chief of the blog.Follow her tweets: @bilbaobab or 微博 @julianaloh