May 10, 2012


Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. By Paul French. Penguin. $26.

Helen Keller in Love. By Rosie Sultan. Viking. $26.95.

      A superb book of investigational scholarship that reads like a gritty fictional murder mystery, Midnight in Peking not only tries to solve a 75-year-old criminal case but also brings back to life a long-forgotten, long-buried time and place: China just before the outbreak of World War II, in the days when the Communists under Mao Tse-Tung (as his name was then spelled) were being consistently underestimated, while the ruling Kuomintang was crumbling from its own internal corruption and rottenness.  Business advisor Paul French, who lives in Shanghai, vividly re-creates “Old China” in both its grandeur and its deep-seated decay.  His story is about the murder of 20-year-old British schoolgirl Pamela Werner, whose horrendously mutilated body was found on a Peking street on January 8, 1937.  British Detective Chief Inspector Richard Harry Dennis and Chinese Colonel Han Shih-ching both investigate the case, from very different and often conflicting angles – this is a genuine clash of cultures and priorities, not a manufactured one.  Somehow their work goes nowhere, and the official investigation is eventually dropped – at which point Pamela’s father, former consular judge E.T.C. Werner, described at one point as “a cantankerous irritant,” launches a private investigation of his own.  Slowly, slowly, the details of what happened to Pamela begin to emerge, as French takes readers into a tremendously seamy underworld of “secret and sordid connections” in which expatriates of all sorts, from British to White Russians, plus Westernized Chinese, participated in social interactions that included opium, prostitution, entrapment of unwary young women, and viciousness so brutal that reading about it is genuinely painful.  In carefully structured prose, following the findings of E.T.C Werner and elaborating upon them, painting scenes with the accuracy of a camera and the eye of an artist, French meticulously builds a case against certain specific individuals and against a society that had its own reasons for not delving too deeply into Pamela’s murder: “By the time Werner began his investigation, Colonel Han had been ordered by Peking police headquarters at Ch’ienmen not to talk about the case. The incident room at Morrison Street had long been dismantled, the crime-scene photos taken down and filed away.”  The dogged determination of the victim’s father is matched by French’s own insistence on learning about details of life at the time of the murder – the use of old spellings of Chinese names is just one way in which French creates a feeling of an age long past.  French inevitably indulges in speculation in dialogue and narrative: when people talked to Werner about his daughter’s killing, “it might not just have been about the cold, hard cash; perhaps it was guilt, the burden of knowing too much and not speaking out.”  But many elements of Midnight in Peking that would seem to be barely believable coincidences in a work of fiction really happened.  For example, when the Japanese occupiers rounded up Allied nationals in Peking in March 1943, two of the men were Werner and a dentist named Wentworth Prentice, who Werner was sure was Pamela’s killer and likely one of the men who gutted her body, dismembered it and drained it of blood – and the two were locked up together by the Japanese.  Old history Midnight in Peking may be – E.T.C. Werner died in 1954, old China 15 years earlier – but French brings the time, the place and the people intensely and at times frighteningly back to life, offering closure, if scarcely calm, to whatever may remain of Pamela and those who knew her.

      Helen Keller in Love features a far more famous woman, but it too delves into a very-little-known incident – in the form of a novel, however, rather than a nonfictional work.  Historical fiction with a romance-novel overlay, Rosie Sultan’s book focuses on Keller’s relationship with a young reporter named Peter Fagan, who came into Keller’s life at a time when her famed tutor and companion, Annie Sullivan, was thought to have  tuberculosis (in what proved to be a misdiagnosis) and was for a time unable to maintain the intense and even suffocating contact and control that were hallmarks of the Sullivan-Keller relationship.  Sultan has Keller herself narrate the book, which is not an especially happy decision, since the writing – this is Sultan’s first novel – is not always at Keller’s level or, indeed, at a particularly high one: “They say love is blind.  But fame can blind a person, too.”  “…[N]ow I craved freedom.”  “…the impenetrable fortress of my family.”  “I was no longer frozen in my grief.  I had a voice, and I intended to use it.”  “I wasn’t always a sure thing.”  “On stage I am the center of the universe.”  “The stars were dead, the universe stalled.  I had no burning thing at my center.”  Stylistic inelegance aside, Helen Keller in Love is an often-fascinating book, because it shows a very human side of one of recent history’s idols, making it clear that Keller was as much a captive of the societal norms of a century ago as she was of her own physical limitations – more so, in fact.  Some of the public Helen Keller is here – her opposition to United States entry into World War I, for example – but the book is intended mostly as a private memoir.  A lake swim, a marriage-license application, train trips, all the normal elements of life in the early 20th century, become far from routine, because Helen Keller is at the center of all the mundane events.  Fagan is a weaker character, pulled along in Keller’s orbit, his motivations never entirely clear, his eventual abandonment of Keller therefore not completely understandable either.  The imagined dialogue between the lovers is more the stuff of romance writing than anything else, which does not mean it is always bad but that it is usually trivial.  Perhaps much of the talk between lovers is indeed superficial, and perhaps Sultan’s intention is to show that even a remarkable woman such as Keller was just like everyone else of her time when she was in love and hoping for marriage and family life.  Certainly Sultan does not mean to trivialize Keller – the book is in large part a tribute to a woman whom Sultan has long admired.  “There are so many ways to show love,” Sultan has Keller write at one point, and certainly Helen Keller in Love is a way for an author to display her feelings for a character out of history.  The book gets a (+++) rating for its sincerity and its attempt to get beneath the public surface of a famous individual to the human being underneath; but it is not, finally, a much more engaging read than a romantic novel involving make-believe people.

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