I’ve been wanting to read Paul French’s 2012 book Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China for over half a decade. Not long after I saw it advertised in the Quality Paperback Book Club catalog I stumbled across a number of favorable reviews, both in newspapers and on book blogs. I figured I’d read it eventually, and then one day I noticed a copy was available for download from my local public library. As I burned through Midnight in Peking in what seemed like not time I knew I’d made the right choice. But like many backlist selection I’ve featured on my blog I also realized I shouldn’t have waited over five years to finally read it.
Our story begins in 1937 in pre-Communist Peking (Beijing), China. Two years before fighting erupts in Europe Japanese and Chinese armies have been battling in China for almost a decade. With Peking surrounded by the Japanese and about to be invaded a young English woman is murdered, her mutilated corpse found dumped on a street corner like discarded refuse. Two detectives, one Chinese the other British are soon tasked with finding her killer(s) but as the fruitless investigation wears on, her father, a middle-aged single father and academic, begins to smell a cover-up. Can her murder be solved before the Japanese invade the city?
Midnight in Peking is more than just a murder story. It’s also a portrait of a forgotten China, a gritty world of opium dens, brothels, poverty, and corruption during waning years of European colonialism. Many of the events described in the book take place in the “Badlands” a rough, vice-filled stretch of town where Peking proper and the European-dominated sections of the city meet. Unlike the rest of Peking it’s here Chinese and Westerners rub elbows, if only to engage in less than wholesome pursuits like gambling, drinking, prostitution and bribery.
I thoroughly enjoyed Midnight in Peking, so much so it easily made my recently posted Top Five Books of Summer List. There’s a good chance French’s excellent book ends up making my year-end Best Nonfiction list as well.