Midnight in Peking, By Paul French

Real-life crime as strange and startling as fiction

The story would be classified as a police procedural if it were fiction, but the shocking murder that triggered the investigation so brilliantly described in these pages was only too real.

It took place in pre-war Peking when the moribund city, no longer capital, was on the brink of invasion by the Japanese. The victim was 19-year Pamela Werner, the mildly rebellious adopted daughter of E.T.C.Werner, an elderly Anglo-German colonial judge turned academic whose wife had died when Pamela was an infant.

On the cusp between a "plain", sporty schoolgirl and a slender, poised young woman, Pamela was eager for grown-up company – "I've always been alone," she said – before obeying her father's wish to complete her education in England.

Both sides of Pamela were present on a cold January night in 1939, when, after skating with a schoolgirl friend, she secretly accepted an invitation to a racy party. Her body, scarcely identifiable due to appalling mutilations, was found on the following morning at the foot of the Fox Tower, a 15th century structure believed to be haunted by fox spirits. In a unique collaboration, the murder was investigated by British detective Richard Dennis, who could probe the Legation Quarter closed to the Chinese, and Colonel Han of the Peking Police.

Their steady, assiduous picking at the case occupies the first two-thirds of the book. French, who is based in Shanghai, gives a wonderfully atmospheric evocation of expatriate Peking, from grand hotels to seedy brothels. When the police were eventually withdrawn from the case by their respective authorities, the case was pursued by Pamela's distraught father, who had the money, the legal training and, above all, the obsession to finish the job. But by this stage, the Japanese had overrun Peking.

A crime story set among sweeping events is reminiscent of Graham Greene, particularly The Third Man, while French's terse, tightly-focussed style has rightly been compared to Chandler. Midnight in Peking deserves a place alongside both these masters.