August 8, 2012 7:54:06 AM
Perhaps we will in upcoming years find the answer to the death of British businessman Neil Heywood, who may have been murdered, according to recent newspaper stories, by the wife of the former Chinese high politico Bo Xilai. Perhaps it will not take 75 years to get the truth out, as it has done for another murder of a Briton in China from back in 1937. Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (Penguin Books), by Paul French, tells a story that is just as sensational as Heywood's. French is a business advisor in Shanghai, but he has written on aspects of Chinese history before. His current book is a real-life whodunit, with a horrific crime, bungling policemen, a cover-up by a corrupt bureaucracy, a determined but unofficial detective, and plenty of red herrings. Plus it gives us the exotic atmosphere of a Peking long gone. It is a fine true-crime page-turner.
The Fox Tower in Peking is an ancient pagoda-style structure built five centuries ago as a watch tower. It is in the middle of fields which the locals said were haunted by vengeful "fox spirits," but were indeed roaming grounds for wild dogs. On 8 January 1937, an old man was walking his caged songbird early in the morning near the tower. Here is the start of cultural oddities: it was not at all unusual for elderly Chinese to take their birds for a walk. The man came across the body of a girl, and notified police. The body had been drained of blood, her rib cage had been broken, and her heart had been ripped out, and was missing. Other organs had been removed. The police started taking information at the crime scene, mystified about the identity of the body until a seventy-year-old man walked by. He had been searching for his daughter Pamela who had not come home the night before, and now he had found her.
The man was Edward Werner, a former consul well known to all the Britons in their expatriate community in Peking. He wasn't liked by them, and was literally an outsider, living outside the quarter that was designated for British homes. He was arrogant and had a temper which got him removed from his post, whereupon he became an academic studying Chinese ways, and he did so industriously. He and his wife had adopted Pamela as an infant, and shortly thereafter the wife had died of a drug overdose, which made some people wonder. The reclusive Werner raised Pamela on his own, and it seems he did as good job as anyone could have.
It was a hard job; Pamela was a handful. At twenty, she was smart and she was pretty, but had always had a will of her own, and had been transferred from one school to another. One of the leads that was followed up was that of her headmaster; he had nothing to do with the murder, it turned out, but he had behaved lasciviously toward her. He was quietly smuggled out of China and avoided disgrace. Pamela liked ice skating and listening to big bands on the radio. She had boyfriends. She had been raised in Peking and spoke fluent Mandarin. Like her father, she was something of a loner, but she had been out with friends just the evening before. She had had an afternoon of ice skating and was about to bicycle home, and some of them were concerned about her route home which would take her through some questionable streets. She reassured her friends, saying, "I've been alone all my life. I am afraid of nothing - nothing! And besides, Peking is the safest city in the world."
Once her body had been discovered and identified, officials sprang into action. One of the problems is that some of them sprang into action to obscure what had happened. Pamela's father was himself a suspect for a while, though anyone could see that the death of his daughter was just as devastating to him as it should have been for any father. Boyfriends were considered, but all had alibis. Edgar Snow, the pro-communist American writer, and his wife Helen Snow were neighbors of the Werners. She was convinced that their radical views had made her the real target, but the assailants had mistaken the look-alike Pamela for her. Perhaps, given the horrendous nature of the injuries done to the body, it was some obscure Chinese sect that had done her in. Because of the nature of the crime and its locale, a joint Chinese-British police operation was launched. Chinese detective Colonel Han joined with former Scotland Yard detective Richard Dennis, and they began to interrogate Pamela's school friends, nearby residents, rickshaw drivers, and even a bizarre group of louche expatriates who went in for nudism and hunting. The detective team was steered away from any evidence that might seem to implicate any expatriates. The investigation wound down; the murder had been horrific and spectacular, but it was going to wind up just another unsolved case.
Pamela's father was not going to stand for it. He wrote one letter after another to the newspapers and to British and Chinese authorities. He published a pamphlet asking that the case be reopened. "All his letters were either ignored or turned down. By January 1938, he had accepted that his appeals were falling on deaf ears and stopped making them. Instead, he took matters into his own hands." During the waning years of his life, he spent his fortune on informants and unofficial investigators. He descended into what was literally called the Badlands, next to the British enclave and visited by expatriates who wanted to take part in the brothels and opium dens. "He slowly emptied his bank account," writes French, "but people talked. What he uncovered was ultimately far worse, far more evil, than anything Peking's numerous armchair detectives could have imagined." He discovered a wide-ranging cover-up, and found that important witnesses had simply lied about vital information in the case. Werner found the answer (you find no spoiler here), and French has broadened it into a account of his daughter's last night.
Sadly, Werner's efforts, though they found truth far deeper than any official investigation, bore little fruit. Werner continued to report officially on what he had found, but no culprit was ever brought to justice. All the time since the murder, the Japanese had swarmed in the background, and eventually they marched through Peking streets, even putting Werner into an internment camp. Pamela Werner's grave, in the British Cemetery, has itself been buried under one of the ring roads around the city. French has brilliantly brought back her sad story, the heroic efforts of her father to uncover the truth, and the almost unimaginably strange atmosphere of the darker parts of old Peking jostling with the proper British Bureaucracy, all about to be swallowed up in the transformations of World War II.