"January, 1937: Peking is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, lavish cocktail bars and opium dens, warlords and corruption, rumours and superstition – and the clock is ticking down on all of it. In the exclusive Legation Quarter, the foreign residents wait nervously for the axe to fall. Japanese troops have already occupied Manchuria and are poised to advance south. Word has it that Chiang Kai-shek and his shaky government, long since moved to Nanking, are ready to cut a deal with Tokyo and leave Peking to its fate. Each day brings a ratcheting up of tension for Chinese and foreigners alike inside the ancient city walls. On one of those walls, not far from the nefarious Badlands, is a massive watchtower – haunted, so the locals believe, by fox spirits that prey upon innocent mortals. Then one bitterly cold night, the body of an innocent mortal is dumped there. It belongs to Pamela Werner, the daughter of a former British consul to China, and when the details of her death become known, people find it hard to credit that any human could treat another in such a fashion. Even as the Japanese noose on the city tightens, the killing of Pamela transfixes Peking. Seventy-five years after these events, Paul French finally gives the case the resolution it was denied at the time."
Despite not being a fan of crime fiction usually, when I think back on it my interest in popular culture is littered with crime references and the idea of bringing the bad guys to justice: over the years I have been a fan, variously, of shows such as Lewis, Watchdog, and Motorway Cops, as well as books by Ruth Rendell, Susan Swan, Marisha Pessl, and Grahame Greene.
However (and this is a big however), I cannot stand the sight of blood. This includes the presence of blood in shows where it is obviously fake, like in Casualty. Another thing I can't abide is graphic descriptions of injury. These two things together often preclude me from exploring much of the crime genre in books and on television. Thankfully, though, I can now add Paul French's work to the safe list thanks to Midnight In Peking, which is due for UK paperback release on May 31st 2012.
So what made me, like the mug that I am, say yes to this when offered it by Penguin's lovely PR people? The main draw for me was the historical aspect: knowing shamefully little about history in general despite studying the subject until I was 18 (thanks, British education system!) means that I am now as keen to get my mitts on history books as possible while I work out what I am interested in more precisely. In spite of being a crime novel, Paul French did not disappoint with his colourful yet well-researched depiction of pre-Communist China. Concise yet engaging, his rendition of this time period instantly made me want to find out more.
This is not the only thing that Midnight In Peking has going for it: the author keeps a tight rein on the information, revealing it little by little in a very controlled fashion, while at the same time treating the reader to sumptuous (yet still concise) descriptions of the cityscape. As we read, we genuinely want to know of the fate of the characters and wish for justice to be finally brought to victim Pamela Werner, whose family incredibly never received justice during their lifetime. It is at times frustrating and at other times satisfying to know the outcome. French keeps the graphic descriptions of Pamela's injuries to a minimum and structures the story so that it is easy enough to skip them for those of us who are not that way inclined.
As a whole, then, Chris French has done a great service to us all, not only in drawing attention to this aspect of China's history but also in terms of bringing some form of peace to a family that never previously was able to attain it for their case. Although at times a little more dialogue is wished for, this is a small flaw in an otherwise great historical novel.
Other books by Paul French
North Korea The Paranoid Peninsula: A Troubled History (2005)
Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand - The Life, Times and Adventures of an American in Shanghai (2006)
Through the Looking Glass: China Foreign Journalists from Opium War to Mao (2009)
The Old Shanghai A-Z (2010)
Paul French is also the author of blog China Rhyming.