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Midnight in Peking

“Midnight in Peking” is one of those rare books that you literally can’t put down.

It’s a true story of the murder of a young British schoolgirl in Peking in 1937, set around the takeover of the city by the Japanese.  Nobody knew it at the time, but it was the end of an era.  After an eight-year occupation by the Japanese, civil war followed for four years and then victory for the communists.  China was never the same again.

At the time of the murder, the European imperial powers had control of their own areas of China.  They enjoyed sovereignty over the treaty ports and significant portions of cities like Shanghai and Peking.  This is in addition to British ruled Hong Kong and Portuguese Macao.

As the British were the most important of the European powers in China, they had control over the Legation Quarter of Peking and other cities like Tientsin.  The latter had the best high school east of Suez, a school attended by Pamela Werner, the murder victim.

Her body was found just outside the Legation Quarter of Peking.  The death of a European so close to the Legation Quarter sent shockwaves through the community and was the main news for weeks, even at a time when Japanese troops surrounded the city and already had control over Manchuria.

Author Paul French is an Englishman who lives in Shanghai and clearly understands China well.  The murder was not solved in 1937, but French’s extensive research has resolved it.  How he was able to do this is fascinating.  It’s also interesting to see how the Chinese and British police operated at the time.

The cast of characters reveals a great deal about pre-war China.  Peking had a significant White Russian community, people who had fled the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik rule.  There were also many Jews who had fled Nazi Germany.  European countries had significant representation, with thousands of their own citizens resident in the country.  There was also a sizeable American community, mostly missionaries right through to businessmen exploiting every vice known to man, in areas like the “Badlands.”  Peking’s best dentist was an American and features prominently in the book.

The Japanese takeover and its aftermath were also of great interest.  Within a few weeks of taking over Peking, the Japanese had started two thousand businesses – 500 brothels, 1,000 opium dens and 500 others, presumably of a more respectable nature.

What the Japanese were doing was taking advantage of a totally degenerate society.  It wasn’t until Mao Zedong that it got cleaned up, but at a heavy price.

If you would rather wait, the book is being turned into a television series.  As it doesn’t say whether it’s a British or an American TV series, I don’t know how easy it will be to see it.  We will have to wait and see.  But in my experience, the book is always better – and this one was a real page-turner!