Midnight in Peking

Midnight in Peking

How the Murder of A Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China

Book - 2012
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Historian and China expert Paul French uncovers the truth behind the notorious unsolved 1937 murder of Pamela Werner, and offers a rare glimpse of the last days of colonial Peking.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Books, 2012
Edition: Revised edition
ISBN: 9780143121008
Branch Call Number: 364.1523 F8888M 2012
Characteristics: x, 260 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm


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Aug 04, 2020

I was intrigued by the mystery surrounding the murder of Pamela Werner and this book is a fascinating hypothesis of what might have happened. But without detailed background notes to corroborate his research, it remains only an hypothesis. Admittedly obtaining much of the information to backup the premise that Wentworth Prentice and his gang of serial rapists killed Pamela is probably impossible. WWII and the Communist take over of China has probably destroyed any documents that might have been housed in the records of the
Chinese police and those housed at the British Legation. This book is very well written and an exciting mystery, but the reader will have to bear in mind that it might be true, partially true or a complete fairy tale.

Aug 12, 2019

An interesting mystery, but as other reviewers have mentioned, I was bothered by the fact that the book seems to be trying to present itself as history, true-crime, and novel all at the same time. It's pretty good if you just want a page-turner, but if what you really want is history and scrupulous research with footnotes, maybe skip this. I also found it annoying that the only map was the end-papers, but very interesting to realize that I have stayed at one of the still extant residence compounds in the story, and have toured the Fox Tower.

IndyPL_SteveB Dec 10, 2018

Fascinating true detective story about the gruesome murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner in Peking (now called Beijing) in 1937. She was the daughter of former British Consul and foremost China expert E.T.C. Werner.

China is in the midst of collapse. The old Chinese rulers are gone; the Nationalist and Communist factions cannot get along. The Japanese army is waiting a few miles outside of the city. Inside the city many foreigners wait, some because they can go nowhere else, some because they do not understand what terror the Japanese will bring in a few weeks. Pamela is socializing with friends in a last burst of party-going before leaving China for England. Her butchered body is found at the bottom of the Fox Tower one morning, a place of great superstition for the locals. A Chinese police detective and an English police detective are paired to seek the murderer before the city collapses. In the chaos and political desperation they are unable to get much cooperation and they have to abandon their case. So the father takes it up and finds that the sordid story is worse than anyone knows. But he can’t get anyone to believe him.

Interesting detective work by the author himself to piece this all together and to track down all of the records and memoirs that bore on the case. With prostitutes, Japanese assassins, and detailed autopsy reports, the story can get gruesome at times; but you can’t wait to see how it ends.

FW_librarian Jun 19, 2015

True story based on the murder of a young woman in Peking and how the investigation was deterred by the white elitists foreigners living in the city and by the political environment of the 1930's despite the determination of the young woman's grief-stricken father and his own productive investigations and results. A heart-wrenching story for any parent in a situation compounded by "bad timing."

Eric_P Jul 14, 2014

Perhaps the most successful literary fraud since the 1983 Hitler Diaries. With a bit of fact-checking, it completely collapses. Even without fact-checking, an attentive reader will find holes so big that you could drive a truck through them.

To take one example, on p.143, the author implies that his villain, W.B. Prentice, is a child molester who is a threat to his own daughter:

"Prentice’s wife, Doris Edna, and their three children, Doris, Wentworth and Constance, had gone back to America in 1932, settling in Los Angeles. They had not returned to Peking since. The American Legation had no formal record of a divorce, but it seemed that Prentice had been living without his family for some years now.

“There was another thing. The Americans had been concerned for the welfare of Prentice's youngest child, his daughter Constance. A file on her had been opened at the legation in 1931, but there was just one line in it: 'Prentice, Miss - Nov. 28, 1931 - 393.1115/14 - Welfare of American in China, Safety of.' There were no details in the file. Nor did the legation have anything more concrete to offer. Dennis didn't know if Doris had left Peking voluntarily, or if Prentice had sent her away, of if she'd fled in order to protect her children from something. Or someone."

French reiterates on p. 224 (upper middle): "No rumour had ever leaked out concerning the fears the U.S. authorities had for his daughter's welfare, were she to stay in his presence. But the fact was that Edna Prentice had taken her three young children and left Peking, never to return. Divorce might have been impossible, but Edna made sure that her husband never had contact with his children again.”

According to the author himself, these passages are all based on a single line of text in the State Department file in the U.S. National Archives. (He omits to tell us that the file is merely a cross-reference to another file.) But Dr. Prentice had two daughters, as the author notes. Are we to understand that one of them was in danger, and the other was not? How does the author know which of the daughters was in danger, and why not the other? How does he know even that the “Miss Prentice” referred to was one of Dr. Prentice’s daughters? He does not tell us.

Doubts about Mr. French’s veracity might be aroused, if we knew that Mrs. Prentice and her three children had returned to the States in 1926, not 1931. They are found on the passenger list for the S.S. President Lincoln, departed Shanghai for San Francisco on June 9, 1926 (which can be found at www.ancestry.com, by searching for Doris Edna Prentice). According to the 1930 U.S. Census, she was residing in Santa Monica, California at the time of the census. In 1931 and 1932, the Santa Monica telephone directory indicates that she continued to reside there.

Our doubts might be further stirred if we knew that there was another "Miss Prentice" living in north China: a missionary nurse/educator named Margaret May Prentice worked at the Episcopal Hospital in Tientsin (85 miles from Peking) from 1924 to 1943.

One possible solution offers itself: to use the citation French supplies and request the indicated file from the U.S. National Archives. When we do, we find a document, a telegram from Tientsin which states that, “Consul Atcheson, accompanied by Captains Brown and Barrett and Lieutenant Royce of the 15th United States Infantry, succeeded this afternoon in bringing into foreign areas and safety the remaining American members of the Methodist Mission situated in the Chinese city, namely the Misses Jacquet, Prentice, Bedell, Baronn, and Mr. and Mrs. Coole.” That is the entire basis for the insinuation that Wentworth Prentice was a child molester.

The author also suggests, on p.243, that Prentice was a Japanese collaborator. Perhaps the reader would prefer to evaluate the evidence for himself, and form his own conclusions about the author's methodology.

Aug 18, 2013

I gave this three stars only as it is incredibly irritatingly written. The story, in and of itself, is utterly compelling – no question at all BUT there are no notes AT ALL. No bibliography to speak of. None of this matters, of course, if writing a novel, but with non-fiction, a much more rigorous process is required, particularly with some of the detail presented. I find it to be igregious padding to write what someone is thinking (! For G*od's sake) as he walking down the street, or looking out a window! Now, if the author had a personal diary or a made a statement to that effect, then the author should say where it came from. Otherwise, it's just turning a fascinating story into just that - a mere story. This happened a lot - not just once or twice. In places, it was used to turn plot in a different direction. Unacceptable.

Additionally, much hinged on the geography of old Peking - a better map than the end papers would have been extremely useful. As would a list of the personae dramatis. A time line (at the end) that worked in parallel to show what happened and how the investigation unfolded would have made it so much easier to understand (Werner's main problem) and much more compelling.

In short, worth the effort BUT it could have been SO MUCH better!

Library_Dragon May 07, 2013

Endlessly fascinating and extremely well-written. Wonderful piece of historical true crime. Highly recommended!

Feb 17, 2013

*** 1/2 Examines the murder of a young woman in 1937. Interesting period of time - British colonialism - Chinese revolution - Japanese invasion. British and Chinese police detectives attempt to solve the murder amid growing chaos. I enjoyed the history as much as the investigation

Oct 14, 2012

left off on page 117.

Sep 12, 2012

An interesting read delving into the workings of 1930's China and the British foreign office still wrapped in colonial customs. More importantly, a look into the excrutiating efforts of a father determined to find out who had killed his daughter, and the circumstances of her last hours.

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