Author’s work of non-fiction visually conveys emotion
It’s 1937 in Peking, China on the eve of the Japanese invasion. The corpse of a British schoolgirl is found mutilated outside the legendary Fox Tower. With no witnesses or real leads, two veteran detectives are left to hunt the killer before a foreign take-over begins.
This sets the story for Paul French’s new novel “Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China,” and follows these British and Chinese detectives in their attempts to bring a killer to justice against a wave of bureaucratic meddling and the abject paranoia of the city’s citizens.
French’s historical novel comes as a rousing success as he manages to deliver an exciting and gripping mystery within the context of a major turning point in the history of modern China.
The author does something that non-fiction books so often fall short of — bringing the reader directly into this time and place so far transplanted from their own. The prose accomplished this by bringing the reader right into the streets of Peking as they haunt over the shoulders of the two detectives handling the case.
The author does something implemented largely in fiction books, incorporating small details like the painted symbol on an ashtray to develop scenes visually for the reader.
The novel also does something interesting in the way it conveys an overlying story of China within the 1930s.
However, the novel is not perfect. Very often the story breaks from the narrative of the investigation to provide sprawling biographies of individuals that often feel taxing to the reader. Nor does the prose ever entirely escape the trappings of historical fiction and the gap that the author keeps between the reader and the scene at hand.
Any time there’s a confrontation between two people, it feels strange to the reader of how quickly it goes by with a few lines of text — what someone said to the other without the reader and the author ever knowing the exacts.
Still, this does not keep French from delivering an extremely compelling story, filled with plenty of interesting characters and unexpected plot twists all with a backdrop just as seedy and intriguing as the story it holds. “Midnight in Peking” tells a dark and terrifying tale as only reality can provide.