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How a murder changed China as it moved toward World War II

Paul French, author of 'Midnight in Peking,' tells how the murder of a British diplomat's teenage daughter shook both Chinese and foreigners in pre-war Peking.

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Q: So you discovered the tale of an incredible murder by reading a footnote?

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A: Only an academic would write a footnote more interesting than the text. They take fascinating subjects and render them bum-numbingly boring.

Q: What does your book tell us about that time and place?

A: It is a story of a small expatriate foreign community in a faraway place, in a different culture. There is a tendency for what we called white mischief – lots of scandals and lots of people losing their moral compasses.

There was a community, called the Badlands, made up of European and American lowlifes who went to China to become lost in a community that wasn't very policed.

Many were White Russians, those hundreds of thousands of Russians who left to escape the Russian revolution. Many ended up homeless and often penniless because they didn't have any skills. A lot went to China, where they tended to fall into the business of pimping, prostitution, and drug dealing.

Q: Peking had quite an underground world of crime and vice, didn't it?

A: Another place I write about quite a lot is Shanghai. When you mention Shanghai in the 1930s, a lot of light bulbs go off. Shanghai was jazz, gangs, and parties. It was like Chicago gone to the East.

People know about that one, Peking hasn't been written about as much.

Q: When it comes to vice and high-living, was Peking like Shanghai lite?

A: Yes.

When you’re in Shanghai, you’re in a treaty port, a kind of hybrid. By contrast, Peking is an ancient city and the former imperial city, and at this time it was a little bit of a lost backwater and wasn’t the capital of China.

It was a city of 3 million people with about 3,000 foreigners that had been the capital and center of China.

The foreign embassies had secured a square mile in the center of Peking. The buildings are still there: in this very Chinese city is a square mile of buildings that look like Bloomsbury of London.

This was where respectable foreign Peking lived, with department stores and bakeries and respectable Western apartments. Just next door was this area of sin and vice run by the White Russians and various driftwood from Europe and America.

They called them "the driftwood," which I thought was very good.

What Pamela's murder showed was the overlap between the responsible people and the Badlands.

Q: Is there any hero in this story?

A: The hero is the father [who was a major suspect]. I think that he solved the crime.

In the book, he comes across to Americans as a cold, unemotional father. He's so unemotional that people say he’s almost autistic.

He’s not autistic, he's English.

To me he was just an English father. That’s what our dads are like: We're sent away to school at a young age. I shake hands when I see my father, I don’t hug him or anything like that.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: I live in Shanghai, and I want to do the great book about the gangs and the girls, the jazz and the dope, and the guns.

It was the Wild East, Chicago writ large: Big Trouble in Big China.

Shanghai was crazy in those days, and the place to be in for a good portion of the world's completely bad folks. It was wild.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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