28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Who Was Pamela?,
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This review is from: Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Paperback)I heard only one episode of "Midnight in Peking" on BBC Radio 4. I found it so gripping and intriguing that I stopped listening and immediately ordered the book from Amazon.co.uk ([I could have bought one from Amazon.com, but ordering the UK version of the book made it all the more exciting]). I was not disappointed.
Mr French's account of the unsolved brutal murder of young Pamela Werner in the last days before Peking fell to Japanese invaders riveted my attention from beginning to end. The author not only follows the evidential trail of the investigation meticulously, but he also evokes the ambience of Peking's vanished past. He sets the mood in the opening chapter with his evocative account of the reputed malevolent spirits that haunt the Fox Tower, the great eastern gate of the city. I loved his detailed descriptions that swept me from the outwardly respectable elegance of the Legation Quarter into the squalor of the Hutong--the tawdry maze of alleys--of the 'Badlands', with rickshaws, 'fast-food' restaurants, and brothels; where down-at-the-heels Russian emigrés mingled with pimps and prostitutes, as well as with 'respectable' people who were merely out for an evening's slumming.
The book's illustrations--including coloured photos, postcards; newspaper squibs; and black-and-white photographs of the protagonists--enhance the narrative (I especially liked the vintage photo of the long-gowned Peking gentleman walking his caged bird). My only complaint is the absence of a map, which would have aided me to visualise the topography of this vast city, since visualisation is important to appreciating the author's intricate descriptions (I found maps of the old city on the publisher's website, but I would have liked to have had one--even a diagram map--in the book; the omission seems singular in light of the other copious illustrations).
I especially liked the way that Mr French tells the story from the respective points of view of the Chinese Detective, the British Detective, and the Father. As the tangled mystery begins to unfold, we learn what each of them learns, and as they learn it. If we never actually discover Pamela's motivations (e.g., exactly why she was expelled from the various schools she attended in her short life), it is because the author is playing fair: he tells only what the evidence reveals, and he relates it gradually, as it is revealed, red herrings and all. Any further speculation about Pamela's character would take us into the realm of fiction, a temptation that the author rightly avoids.
'Who killed Pamela?' proves, in the end, less elusive than 'Who was Pamela?'--a question that remains unanswered. Part of the fascination with the case--and with Mr French's narrative--rests in the fact that Pamela, herself, remains a mystery. We catch only a glimpse of her. It is as if we had picked up copies of the 1937 newspapers, which were obsessed with the horrific murder, until even more horrific stories of a world gone truly mad pushed Pamela's story off the front pages forever.
Like the insubstantial fox spirits, which were said to flicker "briefly before disappearing" , Pamela's image flickers before us momentarily, and then simply disappears.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Aug 2012 11:44:33 BDT
Great review, I hadn't thought about the fact that the question 'Who was Pamela' was, as you pointed out, actually more elusive than 'Who killed Pamela'?!
In reply to an earlier post on 23 Aug 2012 02:12:29 BDT
F. S. L'hoir says:
Thank you. I'm happy you found it helpful.
Usually, I don't like 'true crime' books, but I found this one fascinating, since it is set into a vanished past, which the author recreates so beautifully. It is like watching old black-and-white film clips that give us three accounts of a forgotten mystery.
Posted on 8 Oct 2013 16:59:14 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 9 Oct 2013 12:38:20 BDT]
Posted on 9 Oct 2013 12:39:58 BDT
Interesting comment about the author "playing fair", and taking us into the realm of fiction.
This site may cause you to change your mind, or at least be of interest:
In reply to an earlier post on 9 Oct 2013 12:46:38 BDT
F. S. L'hoir says:
Thank you for the link, I look forward to reading it.
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