On a cold Peking morning in 1937, a man named Chang Pao-chen was taking his caged songbird for a walk when he discovered the mutilated body of a 19-year old British girl. She was Pamela Werner. Her father, a distinguished diplomat and scholar of Chinese dialects, had been searching for her with increasing alarm since she failed to return from ice skating with a friend the evening before.
Bodies fall every day. What makes this one's tale worth telling, as Paul French does with a police procedural's efficiency in Midnight in Peking, is the songbird, that essential dose of cultural strangeness that can lift narratives of murder above the plainspoken fray of the true- crime genre.
French's setting is the Legation Quarter, a walled and gated scrap of Peking where between the wars a few thousand Westerners lived as they would have back home, surrounded by bars, department stores and cinemas — almost in a mirrored version of the Forbidden City.
Pamela's murder forced these adjacent but unmixed worlds together. Two detectives, Colonel Han and the Scotland Yard-trained Richard Dennis, paired to take the case, interrogating rickshaw drivers, her school friends, and, eventually, a bizarre cabal of men interested in the uncommon joint pursuits of nudism and hunting.
This makes for fairly interesting reading until the book's final 75 pages. Then it becomes riveting. That is when Pamela's father initiates his own, obsessive investigation, hiring Chinese detectives and bombarding the recalcitrant Foreign Office in London with memos.
Some books falter when they "solve" a cold case (the otherwise admirable The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale, comes to mind) but this book's solution, when it arrives, is persuasive and disturbing, and several small clues, scattered early on to be gathered by astute readers, click agreeably into place.
Unfortunately French is a careless writer, prone to cliché and moralizing. More seriously, the historical context in which he attempts to locate Pamela's murder, the "last days" of old China, never seems particularly relevant to her death. As a result, Midnight in Peking doesn't rise to the level of the best work of Erik Larson or John Berendt, both writers who understood murder as the single event that most starkly reveals a subculture's demons, but who found, in the Chicago World's Fair and phantasmagoric Savannah, more resonant milieus.
Almost inadvertently, however, the book offers a subtler idea: that the years before Pearl Harbor were the last time China would ever seem so immeasurably remote from Western life. By 1945 television, airplanes, and war had made Asia familiar. And now, had she lived, Pamela Werner, who would be 94 years old, could probably find video of Chinese men walking their songbirds online.
Charles Finch is the author of A Burial at Sea.