Book reviews from The Free Lance-Star.
Cold case revisited
Chinese murder provides fascinating foundation
By Drew Gallagher
For The Free Lance–Star
IN 1937 a 19-year-old Englishwoman named Pamela Werner was brutally murdered in Peking. It shocked a city and generated press around the world, until the investigation was closed with no arrests or suspects and the world fell into World War II.
Her story was lost for nearly 70 years until writer Paul French stumbled upon it in a footnote of a biography he was reading. French has written the story of her murder and the ensuing investigation in “Midnight in Peking” and it is a fascinating look back on a long-forgotten crime and an equally fascinating look at how French came to the story and the details he was able to glean from seven years of exhaustive research. It is as compelling as any murder mystery with puzzle pieces plucked from the stacks of libraries around the world.
Though the story provides enough intrigue, French’s construct of the book makes it more interesting. Halfway through, the official investigation has concluded and there are no substantial leads; the authorities and the world have turned their eyes upon the encroaching Japanese presence in China. It appears that the case is closed, but then the “hero” of the book gets involved and it becomes incredible what a father’s
love and a little money in a floundering economy can do.
Pamela’s father, E.T.C. Werner, was a highly regarded British envoy and scholar who had lived in China for most of his adult life. Werner’s wife had died under mysterious circumstances when Pamela was only 5, and raising a daughter on his own (though he had the help of a household staff) had proven far more challenging than translating Chinese customs and texts.
But the perceived emotional distance from his daughter is ultimately revealed as a devotion in his lifelong quest to find her murderer long after Chinese and British authorities have told him in no uncertain terms that he needs to stop snooping in matters beyond his professional purview.
Fortunately Werner did not stop.
Officially, the murder of Pamela Werner was closed as unsolved, but from the efforts of her distraught father, French was able to reach a conclusion that E.T.C. Werner had reached himself and had shared, repeatedly, with the British government.
The government chose to ignore him. French did not ignore him, and the result is a compelling book.
Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.
MIDNIGHT IN PEKING
By Paul French
(Penguin, $26, 272 pp.)
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