Mystery of a shocking murder in Peking in early 20th century
Midnight in Peking, Paul French, Viking, Pp 260 (HB), $ 26
Paul French’s backlist reveals his expertise in early 20th-cenury Chinese social history. In this current book, he focuses on the Western expatriate presence in Shanghai and Peking while uncovering his latest account of Peking of the thirties. By the end of his book, he claims to have solved a mystery that shocked the world even in the middle of the Japanese invasion of China.
In this compelling mystery story set in a sweeping historical context, we are taken back to 1937 and the brutal, bizarre murder of an English schoolgirl in Peking, a city on the edge of an abyss. On January 8, 1937, the body of a young woman is found, lying at an odd angle and covered by a layer of frost under a haunted watchtower that overlooks the colonial enclave known as the Legation Quarter. The lane is wide enough to walk or cycle on. The girl’s clothes are dishevelled, the body repeatedly stabbed, her heart and other organs removed and her body drained of blood. An expensive watch that has stopped just after midnight shines bright on her wrist. The victim is Pamela Werner, the 19-year old daughter of the city’s former British consul, Edward Werner. It is an old man named Chang Pao-chan, who reports about the body to the nearest police box as fast as his aged feet can carry him. Corporal Kao requests for assistance from detective Colonel Han shih-ching as he realises that the deceased is not an ordinary person; “it was laowai, which meant trouble and a lot of paperwork, as there would be pressure from above for results, else it would mean loss of face before the foreigners.”
Not only are the police horrified by the implications of her piteous remains, but diplomatic enquiries compound the horror. It is as though the murder is an inconvenience that needs to be swept away. Paul French reveals the Legation Quarter as a dying and decadent colony, collectively fiddling while Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumours and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city and the discovery of Pamela Werner’s body sends a shiver through the already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman or one of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or is it perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives – one British and one Chinese – race against the clock solve the crime before the Japanese invade Peking. Can they find the killer in time before the Japanese invasion?
In the years that follow, Pamela’s case is dropped from the headlines to be replaced by stories of carnage that spreads across Europe and Asia. She is reduced quite literally to a historical footnote till Paul French comes across news about her while reading a biography of American journalist, Edgar Snow and his wife Helen, who had been neighbours of the Werner family in Peking. Helen fears that Kuomintang agents, intent on silencing her and her husband, have killed Pamela in a case of mistaken identity.
Paul French gathers evidence to provide a detailed account of the police investigation, bogged down as it is with red tape. At first, Paul French points the finger at Pamela’s father, who is her only relative. Edward Werner has all the hallmarks of a lone wolf. He is an anti-social retired British diplomat turned China scholar. His violent temper has led to his removal from office though he has acquired a rich understanding of the country and who shuns his fellow expatriates and has an awkward relationship with the foreign community in Peking. He has raised Pamela, an adopted daughter of Russian refugees on his own, after his wife dies of a drug overdose that leaves people wondering. Devastated at the loss of his daughter, Werner pursues Pamela’s killers himself and depletes his savings in trying to help solve the case.
(Viking, Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R ORL, England.)
The Red House, Mark Haddon, Jonathan Cape, Pp 264, $12.99
ark Haddon tells the tale of a week of vacation from the perspective of the vacationers who are the actors in the story.
MFollowing the death of their mother, estranged siblings Richard and Angela decide to bring their respective families together for a week of holiday at a rental house in the English countryside. Angela and Richard have had a long distance relationship, thanks to their father’s death when they were young and their mother’s subsequent dissolution into an alcoholic waste.
The estrangement between the brother and sister is only one source of potential drama. Richard, a doctor facing a court hearing over malpractice, has only recently married Louisa, a woman with something of a checkered past and a problematic vegetarian teenage daughter, Melissa. Angela has been married to Dominic for almost 20 years and they have three children – athletic 17-year old Alex, pious Daisy, 16 and Benjy, perpetually curious but oddly melancholy, aged eight.
Dominic is running from an affair turned sour. Daisy is struggling to come to terms with how little anyone in the family cares about her passionate Christian faith. Melissa wants nothing less than to be stranded in the country with these people. Angela and Louisa, each have traumas in their past they are hoping to escape. Alex is struggling with growing towards manhood.
Haddon conveys the points of views which shift rapidly between the four adults, three teenagers and an eight-year old boy. He explores their thoughts and in doing so, reveals their characters. The only trouble is that this shuffling between the characters so incessantly makes the story become an exercise in attempting to figure out who is where and who is doing what, in roughly the first one-third of the story.
The story becomes a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires, all adding to a portrait of contemporary life not as bittersweet, comic or deeply felt. As we come to know the characters, they become profoundly real to us. It becomes a literary tour-de-force that illustrates the puzzle of a family in an empathetic manner, making the story enthralling for many readers.
(Jonathan Cape, Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SWIV 25A; www.vintage. books.co.uk)
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Dr D Amalor, Pp 196 (HB), Rs 580.00, Gyan Books Pvt Ltd. Gyan Kunj, 23, Main Ansari Road, Darya Ganj, New Delhi:-110 002; [email protected]