Midnight in Peking by Paul French, based on a true series of events and set in 1937 Peking, explores the murder and subsequent investigation of a young British woman. The horrific crime took place during a period of political and cultural turmoil involving the Chinese, Japanese, British and White Russians.
The book begins by describing the political situation at the time the murder took place. I was somewhat baffled at first. I often find politics to be a complicated topic and even more so when it’s the politics of a country not my own. But it turned out to be a quick summary and it wasn’t long before I realized that this description had an important place in the story. The investigation into the death of this young woman would require all the diplomacy and tact possible by the British as well as the Chinese investigators and to understand the subtleties involved the reader needs to have an idea of the goings on at the time, and this the author provides.
Midnight in Peking would read like a modern day fictional mystery except for the fact that the crime actually did happen. The political figures, criminal investigators and newspaper reporters are historical figures and therefore much is known about them. Hence, the author has a rich resource of material to draw from. The book is also accompanied by photos of the main players in this drama which helps to put a human face to the descriptions of some of the behavior described.
The story is written in clear, concise script and told chronologically. And though the author introduces quite a few characters, they are not difficult to keep straight given that they are written with individual personalities, positions and status within Peking society. The book is well researched and documented and the author has made more information available on his website where you can find a map with points of interest, photos of old Peking, original news clippings – all sorts of fascinating data.
I think this book would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers: those who like mysteries, true crime, cultural history and politics. Without giving anything away, I can safely say that Midnight in Peking is a fascinating look at what can happen when diplomacy wins over justice…and when it does not. Highly recommended.