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Midnight in Peking
, 18 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Paperback)
In the harsh Peking winter, the badly mutilated body of a young western woman is found abandoned in the shadow of the Fox Tower. This young woman is Pamela Werner, 19 years old. Her face has been stabbed so many times that she is beyond recognition, her clothes are ripped and her internal organs have been crudely carved from her body. Midnight in Peking details the investigation to find her murderer, against the backdrop of pre-war China in 1937. The Japanese invaders are lurking, the political relationship between the Chinese and the Western settlers is tense and the opium-fuelled debauchery of Peking threatens to swallow any hope of finding the guilty ones.
French's tone is straight forward, matter of fact and remote. The reader is immediately drawn into the heady world of European settlers in Peking, but the overall reading experience is confusing. Though it is well researched and filled with facts, I quite often found that I lost interest. I also found myself wondering whether I was reading a novel or a piece of historical research. Feelings and thoughts are super-imposed on real people, but far from making it read like a historical novel, it just feels like guesswork, something which is massively at odds with the detailed, thorough image it tries to project of itself.
Half-way through there is also a disturbing shift in perspective. We have just spent the first 150 pages looking through the eyes of, and sympathising with, DCI Dennis and Colonel Han, the two officers in charge of the investigation. Then it suddenly changes to Pamela's father's view, and the reader's allegiance suddenly has to change. Were the officers in charge of the investigation corrupt and incompetent? Did they deliberately ignore and hide essential evidence? Just a few pages ago we were reading about how DCI Dennis was making himself sick with his obsession with bringing Pamela's murderer to justice. The lack of consistency both irritated and confused me.
No doubt this is a thoroughly researched book, and no doubt Pamela Werner's story is a tragic one, but there is also no doubt that writing is not one of French's strongest talents. As if I needed further proof of this, the book is liberally sprinkled with terrible phrases such as 'Werner seethed'.
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