Murder at midnight

In his new book, author Paul French unravels an old Peking murder mystery, unsolved for 74 years.

Midnight in Peking is available from The Bookworm (240RMB).

See photographs of Time Out Beijing's murder mystery walk with Paul French

It’s Russian Christmas in 1937. Old Peking is on the eve of witnessing its most grisly murder: that of a young English girl whose mutilated corpse is discovered dumped by the Fox Tower, alongside the old city walls. Here, the superstitious believed that fox spirits lurked – shape-shifting ghosts that lured the morally corrupt and weak-willed to their deaths. Despite this, detectives suspect that the murderer prowls closer to home, among the 2,000 members of the foreign community who are jittery from the encroaching Japanese invasion dominating headlines of the day.
The gruesome murder of Pamela Werner was never solved. Until now. In his new book, Midnight in Peking, Paul French finally lays the case to rest. This month, the author teams up with Time Out to provide a city tour themed around that fateful night.
In case you can’t wait, we’ve asked French to introduce the mystery. Who did it? We can’t say. Read on and you might just solve it yourself…

The victim

Pamela Werner
‘Nineteen-year-old Pamela Werner was different things to different people. To her father, a former British consul general in Foochow and a noted Sinologist, she was his beautiful adopted daughter with grey eyes and dirty blonde hair. To her fellow pupils at her elite private school in Tientsin, she was somewhat older, somewhat more knowing than most others in the sixth form. But to those who knew her in Peking, she was a stylish and glamorous woman who was a regular at the dances held at the Grand Hotel des Wagons Lits in the Legation Quarter or the Grand Hotel de Pekin on the corner of Morrison Street and Chang’an Avenue. At 19, Pamela was a schoolgirl on the cusp of womanhood. She liked to dance, she liked to date. But somewhere, and somehow, on this Russian Christmas she met the wrong man…’

The detectives

Colonel Han Shih-ching and DCI Dick Dennis
‘The Fox Tower was outside the foreign enclave of the Legation Quarter – it was Chinese territory. So the case fell to Colonel Han Shih-ching, the city’s longest-serving murder detective. He worked alongside Inspector Dick Dennis, an East End lad who’d risen through the ranks to become a Scotland Yard detective before being posted to China. These two policemen, from different backgrounds, were to become close allies as they worked together to pursue Pamela’s killer. It was to become the de? ning murder investigation of both their careers.’

The suspects

ETC Werner
‘Pamela’s grieving father was Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, one of the best known and most respected foreigners in Peking, but also an odd and aloof man. Not for ETC Werner the goldfish bowl-like social life of the Legation Quarter with its private clubs, snobbishness and whispered gossip. Werner chose to live in Chinese Peking, in the Eastern City, on a hutong called Armour Factory Alley that still exists today. He was a scholar, a former British diplomat who spoke eight Chinese dialects, a man who had ?rst come to China in the 1880s as a young interpreter and, though retired, had stayed. But rumours had long swirled around the reclusive ETC – rumours about just how his supposedly beloved wife had died 15 years earlier. Now those suspicions resurfaced and people began to ask, could a father murder and mutilate his own daughter?’
‘In the 1930s, all of Peking’s taxi drivers, the city’s lean, muscular rickshaw pullers, could take you to the “Badlands”, the few acres of hutongs just to the east of the Legation Quarter – Chuanpan and Houguo Hutongs. There, the police found a Russian man called “Pinfold”, a prime example of what was known as foreign “driftwood”; the white criminal underclass of Peking. Here was where the pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers congregated around the bars and brothels of the Badlands. Pinfold slept all day and prowled the alleys of the eastern Tartar City by night. Pamela was last seen alive ice-skating at a rink run by the French Embassy in the Legation Quarter and her body was found at the Fox Tower – between these two locations was nothing but the Badlands. In the middle, police found Pinfold, with a knife, drenched in blood…’
Wentworth Prentice
‘Many an eyebrow was raised in the Legation Quarter when an American by the name of Wentworth Baldwin Prentice was brought in for questioning amid accusations that he knew Pamela. Prentice was on very familiar terms with many of the highest echelons of Legation Quarter society as the premier foreign dentist in Peking. But all was not as proper and God-fearing as the ladies who took tiffin at the Grand Hotel de Pekin would like to believe. Prentice’s wife had, years earlier, removed her young children from Peking, taking refuge in America. Rumours circulated of a sordid nudist colony in the Western Hills, private parties replete with naked dancing girls and a “love cult” involving some of the most prominent foreigners in Peking, all led by the allegedly debauched dentist. Soon, the world of the upright and uptight Legation Quarter and the down-and-dirty Badlands would merge – and they overlapped more than many would have liked to believe.’