Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Penguin Books)


Until I met my husband I didn’t know that True Crime was worthy of a Dewey Decimal classification. I have had no interest in the genre even after learning that it has a large readership—people with a vicarious disposition to relive crime in the extreme details usually relegated to fiction.

I borrowed this book from my local library because it was shelved as “history.” In less than twenty pages, after line upon line of descriptive adjectives for a corpse covered in stab wounds, I realized I was reading my first true crime.

And I. Was. Fascinated.

Author Paul French wastes no time setting the stage: One winter morning in 1937 the body of a young girl is found at the foot of Beijing’s Fox Tower. Oddly, the body has been drained of blood and her heart is missing. 

From this spot where the body is discovered, French pulls you slowly, deeper and deeper, into the inner life of Beijing: the ways and customs of the Chinese, the secret lives of its British residents, and the politics that shape its fate. 

While he does stay true to historical facts, French does take liberty with the thoughts and perspective of the characters, giving the book somewhat of a fictional flavor. I appreciated his use of expatriate jargon (e.g. “amah,” “number one boy”) and Mandarin phrases. Without being overdone, they are well placed and lend the book authenticity. French also does a superb job of unfolding and exposing Beijing’s cultural context of the 1930s without patronizing the reader. 

Almost as fascinating as French’s storytelling, is the collection of photographs in the middle of the book. I say look at these first. They are not spoilers and will give you a visual context as you read the book, which in itself is one giant story mural. 

The book has the veracity and authenticity of non-fiction, while also providing the intrigues of a solid piece of fiction. It’s a prosaic quilt that pieces together history, anthropology, and true crime with threads of fiction.

Feature image by Tony Bertolino on Unsplash

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