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Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

January 17, 2013 2 comments

Black adn white photo of a young woman above the skyline of Peking.Summary:
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war.  In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching.  In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits.  Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator.  They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.

Review:
This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.

My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French.  In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives.  It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime.  I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.

So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others?  Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age.  She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays.  Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels.  Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries.  This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation.  Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team.  In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women.  Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well.  Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.

French unfurls the story well.  He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well.  A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel.  I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were.  I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class.  In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important.  It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:

Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)

I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking.  It took a bit to truly get into the story.  A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice.  At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl.  But that’s not the story at all.  The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people.  It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.

Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism.  It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Encountering Columbine

April 8, 2009 3 comments

A new book is coming out this week in the true crime genre: Columbine by Dave Cullen.  This, of course, is leading people to talk about the first big American school shooting, with even an article in Newsweek about it.

I’m part of the generation that was heavily impacted by Columbine.  I was a freshman in highschool when it happened.  I’ve read some articles written by members of my generation about it.  They all say similar things.

We were shocked into realizing we weren’t safe.
We instantly became more likely to talk to the loners.
Suddenly schools were having practice lock-downs, just in case.

Of course I experienced all of these things, but Columbine was twisted and used by my religious fundamentalist community to such an extent that even with all of the news coverage, I had some of the details of the shooting completely wrong for years.

You see, my fundamentalist protestant school (that I thankfully got out of my sophomore year) told us that the shooters were targeting the Christian students.

That’s right.  It wasn’t random.  It wasn’t the jocks or the popular kids.  It was the Christian kids.

I remember having an assembly at my school where the principal told us that the shooters asked the kids if they believed in God/Jesus.  If they said no, then the shooters would let them live.  If they said yes, then the shooters killed them.  There was even a book called She Said Yes, which was essentially required reading in my community for all highschoolers.  There is a huge amount of controversy surrounding this book now, with the people who were actually present at Columbine stating that no such exchange ever occurred.

Well, I know this now, but I didn’t know it then.  At the assembly regarding Columbine, my principal hailed the teenager who died saying yes as a martyr.  He grilled us asking us if push came to shove if we would denounce Jesus.  He showed us Bible verses showing that denouncing our Savior would permanently ban us from Heaven.  So fourteen year old me was given the choice of denouncing my Savior and living longer but going to Hell or affirming my belief and dying immediately but going to Heaven.  This, then, became my primary focus that bothered me for years until I left the faith.

While my public schoolmates simply wondered how they would survive a school shooting, I agonized wondering if when push came to shove I would denounce Jesus.  What a choice for a fourteen year old to be weighed down with.  I wasn’t told the logical thing my secular schoolmates were told repeatedly by their parents and teachers:  if a shooting is occurring, do what you need to do to stay alive.  No, no, I was told that my everlasting soul was the far more important thing.  If I was a “TRUE CHRISTIAN,” I would be willing to die.  I shouldn’t be afraid of dying, if I truly believed that I knew where I was going when I died.  This choice haunted me for years.

I quickly became accustomed to the idea that someone could come to school with a gun or a bomb and try to kill us all.  I think pretty much everyone in my generation has simply acclamated to that.  In fact, my highschool had an actual lock-down when one of our students’ parents woke up to find his son and his gun missing.  Luckily for us, he went to his ex-girlfriend’s highschool instead of mine, but we were still on lock-down for hours while the cops tried to figure out where he was.  Frankly I’m not at all surprised I have a story like that, and most people my age who I know have a similar, or worse, one.

What did haunt me for years though was this idea that everyone outside of our community hated us and wanted us dead.  The idea that we were persecuted, even to the point of being a martyr for our faith.  Was I strong enough for such a thing?  The vary thought ate at my soul.

Maybe if the story they told us about Columbine was true, I’d be less upset about it in retrospect.  I’m sure that gay teens are haunted by Matthew Shephard’s murder, and understandably so.  The thing is though, Columbine wasn’t about persecuting Christian teens at all.  It was about a couple of very angry, mentally disturbed teens taking it out on those closest to them.  The story my Christian school told me never actually happened, and that is what makes me angry.  It’s blatant mind-control techniques.  They made me terrified of going to public school, of encountering the secular world.  Frankly, the amount of balls it took me to beg to go to public school and to walk into that building when I had been told repeatedly that it was exactly like walking into a war zone was enormous.  I’m not at all surprised, given scare tactics like this, at the number of fundy-raised kids who remain fundy.

Fundy kids are being raised in fear, and fear breeds hate.  If you think that how fundies raise their kids is their business and doesn’t affect you, you are dead wrong.  For fundy groups, it’s all about an us versus them mentality, and really, that mentality is what the Columbine shooters had too.