Arts, Culture & Media

Video: A Tale of Midnight Murder in Peking

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Paul French on the street where Pamela Werner lived (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)

The November murder of a British businessman Neil Heywood in China is still rocking the top ranks of power in China, with the wife of a former senior official accused of the crime.

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Another murder in China of a British subject created its own shockwaves in 1937, when a 19-year-old British schoolgirl's body was found near an ancient watchtower in the heart of old Beijing. No one ever answered for the murder of Pamela Werner — in part because of the coming war. British author Paul French finally put the pieces together in his book "Midnight in Peking," which is just out in the U.S.

As French tells it, on a cold January morning in 1937, an old man out walking his bird in a cage beside Beijing's old city wall stumbled across a horrific sight — a young woman, mutilated and eviscerated. The old man ran for the police. Seventy-five years later, Paul French takes me to the same spot.

"This would have been the scene of a major police investigation, with photographers, the ambulance here to take Pamela's body to the autopsy. Pamela's father, who'd been out all night looking for her, came here, looking for his daughter, saw this crowd of people, walked through, immediately recognized her blonde hair and the clothes she was wearing, and shouted her name and then collapsed in a dead faint, basically had a heart attack on the spot," French said.

This spot was just a couple hundred yards from Pamela Werner's house. Paul French first heard about the murder as a footnote in a book by Edgar Snow, a leftist American journalist. Snow had lived next door to Pamela and her adoptive father, a retired British diplomat and China scholar, whose wife had died when Pamela was 3.

"I had read that this British girl had been murdered in 1937, at just the time that Peking was surrounded by the Japanese, and the tension in the city was amazing," said French. "So everyone was absolutely terrified, and knew that the end was coming, and Pamela's death came to symbolize for the city, both Chinese and foreign, this kind of tension, and the end of a particular age, and the descent from civilization to barbarism."

"Midnight in Peking," rich in period detail, tells the story of how 19-year-old Pamela's ventures into the world of dating, dances, and dalliances with older men proved fatal. French's book describes how the small foreign community in Beijing didn't have to wait for barbarism to descend — it had a dark side within it, including a group of supposedly respectable Western men who lured and gang-raped young Western women. British diplomats tried to stop the murder investigation, rather than expose scandal. But Pamela's father, E.T.C. Werner wouldn't let that happen. Paul French says in researching his book, Werner came off as a complicated man.

"He comes across early on as a very cold, unemotional, typically English father. And I thought, 'Oh, he won't be very hard to write about, because I had a cold, unemotional, typically English father.' And I thought, 'Maybe I'm a cold, unemotional, typically English father to my son,'" French said. "But as the investigation moves on, and then he himself became involved in the investigation, driving it forward, you start to see, and hopefully the reader starts to warm to and understand that he has this cold, formal, stiff demeanor, but he really is dedicated to finding who killed his daughter."

It wasn't easy, with both the British and Chinese investigators holding back, and then, with the Japanese occupying Beijing six months after the murder. French says Werner used his own money to hire detectives and buy evidence off of rickshaw drivers, bartenders, prostitutes – anyone who might have caught a glimpse of his daughter's last hours. Werner compiled a report to send to the British government, so it could follow up on the death of a British subject in a foreign land.

He sent off the document – 150 typed pages with hand-written notes in the margins – just before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

"But it doesn't get to London until 1943, because of the disruption of the sea lanes and World War II," French said. "When it gets to London in 1943, they look at it, they sign it as accepted, and they put it in the files – and they forget about it."

There it sat until Paul French discovered it, during the five years he spent poring over British archives and retracing Pamela's steps in researching his book. French found – to his astonishment – that what he'd thought was a cold case had in fact been solved by Pamela's father. It's just that no one noticed.

"I thought there were a lot of good characters, with the Chinese working with the British detective, a little bit of sex, a little bit of opium, good locations, a great time, with China on the cusp, the collapse from civilization to barbarism," French said. "And I did have this idea that, if we could just remember Pamela, if we could see her again. If she could come back with us, then the mere act of not forgetting someone would be some sort of justice."

Pamela's father never forgot. E.T.C. Werner stayed in Beijing until a few years after the Communists came to power so he could be close to the graves of his wife and daughter, close to the man he believed murdered his daughter, close to the old French embassy, where Pamela went ice skating on her last evening alive.

When she got on her bicycle that night, supposedly heading home, her friends looked out at the pitch-black streets and said, 'aren't you afraid to be out there alone?' She replied, 'I've been alone all my life,' and pedaled off into the darkness.

Only now, 75 years later, does the book "Midnight in Peking" shed light on what happened next.

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