2017-08-06

sovay: (Rotwang)
I just found, in my e-mail, an extensive LJ-comment that I had entirely forgotten about writing in September. It was never posted; I am leaving it here because there's no point in going back to LJ and I am tired of feeling that my sole contribution to my friendlist is links. [personal profile] moon_custafer had been talking about Nathan J. Newitter, the American consul to Japan appointed during Grant's first term of office: "Newitter, so far as I can tell, was enthusiastic but not exactly a born diplomat, and he kept getting into fights with the British consul over social events, which is probably why he was recalled, possibly to the disappointment of Westerners resident at Kobe who he'd saved from boredom." Whereon—

So there's a book by Paul French called Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (2011), which I read shortly after it came out and never wrote up because a lot of my life was getting away from me just then. If you have not read it, it's the story of the murder of Pamela Werner, whose brutally cut and beaten body was discovered on January 7th, 1937 at the foot of the Fox Tower in then-Peking. As both a review and reopening of the case, it is insightfully and not straightforwardly written, operating at times like an exercise in historical unreliability. Characters are introduced by their official statistics, which the narrative then peels back over pages or chapters to reveal a more nuanced, complicating picture, sometimes with tantalizing hints, sometimes inconveniently substantiable. We're led to believe that we're following the adventures of a British detective and a Chinese policeman whose unprecedented buddy-cop pairing will crack the walls between the Legation Quarter and the Tartar City and solve the disappearance of the Peking-born British diplomat's daughter who lived with more than a foot in either world; we learn their histories, their mutual respect, their complementary working methods; we share their frustration with nervous governments and vanishing witnesses: their investigations come to naught. For political reasons, for personal ones, the case spins off, derails itself, drifts and begins to disintegrate as weeks turn into months, leads into dead ends, the trail doesn't so much go cold as have several buckets of ice water dashed over it. Conspiracy theories fog up from the sensational headlines, incorporating everything from mistaken identities to predatory fox spirits. One detective dissolves into illness and fantasizing, the other simply recedes from view. In the end, the murder's most steadfast investigator is the girl's father, Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner, who comes under the same dual-layer scrutiny as everyone else in the book.

(I appreciate that Pamela does, too, even if there is less information available about her; she is not merely the corpse in the fridge and French acknowledges the gaps. It's hard to see a beautiful dead girl clearly. The researches of DCI Richard Dennis and Colonel Han Shih-ching keep running up against an apparent split in Pamela's identity: the sports-keen, Latin-cramming schoolgirl with a popular boyfriend on the swim team and the glamorous good-time girl whose Peking dates were shocked to discover, after the fact, that their partner of the cafés and cabarets and the new skating rink had still been attending Tientsin Grammar. It speaks well for her now, but it looked questionable then for a white girl to prefer to spend so much of her time outside the Legation Quarter. She was used to fending for herself while her father traveled, her mother's money and her British citizenship affording her one axis of protection while her facility with languages and her native knowledge of the city offered another. She had been thrown out of three schools before Tientsin for "rebellious" behavior; at the time of her murder, she was two weeks from being sent to England for the first time in her life, where her father hoped she would stabilize with the support of her mother's family. She was eighteen or nineteen years old. Adopted as a toddler through a Catholic orphanage specializing in the children of Peking's poor foreigners, Pamela's actual age was and remains unknown; her birth parents were never recorded and never seem to have held much interest for her. Family tradition credited White Russian ancestry with the fair hair and complexion and grey eyes by which her corpse was identified. The face itself was too badly mutilated for even her father to say for sure.)

Werner is a bravura character, the reason I am writing this comment in the first place. He looks at first like a figure of familiar eccentricity: the aging father of a motherless daughter, a polyglot ex-consul given to lengthy sojourns in the Mongolian desert while his only child runs wild in Peking, an old China hand whose reputation leans more toward cantankerous scholar than canny diplomat. He wears wraparound sunglasses of his own invention and tramps the streets in his old desert-bleached gabardine coat. You're pretty sure Noel Streatfeild wrote him at least once. As the portrait fills itself in, however, a much more angular characterization of Werner begins to emerge: a stiff-necked, thin-skinned, fearsomely smart man who had achieved the almost unprecedented feat of getting himself kicked out of the foreign service in China, a youthful meteor whose precipitous middle-aged fall was linked in expatriate gossip to his wife's early death—if the disgrace and social isolation hadn't killed her, maybe it was only because her husband had gotten there first. French relates the known facts of Gladys Nina Ravenshaw's death in 1922 without making a second mystery of them, just as he mostly steers clear of resolving whether Werner really was the poisonous failure his enemies claimed or just a man profoundly uninterested in—perhaps incapable of—the social game-playing his profession demanded more unforgivingly than fluency in Chinese. As with most things, the truth is probably a combination. What really, sickeningly mattered was that by the time of Pamela's murder, Werner had alienated nearly the entire British infrastructure in Peking, most fatally the diplomatic system that could have thrown its weight on his side when it came to backing a combative, griefstricken father against a city whose racial-political tensions on the edge of World War II were a proverbial powderkeg. The reader is left with the suspicion that for the daughter of any other British national, the legation might have been willing to push a little harder for the truth. For E.T.C. Werner, who badgered officials and police on both sides and called his own press conferences and messed about with crime scenes and generally made a public nuisance of himself, it wasn't worth the risk of touching the city off. And yet, stubborn, singleminded, socially embarrassing, Werner persisted in his investigations long after the official file on his daughter's murder had been closed and French thinks he got it right, though he never was able to get justice. In any case, when you talk about Newitter being recalled for fighting with the British consul, I think at once of Werner, who is sort of the grimmer version of that story.

I remain stunned that no one has adapted Midnight in Peking into a movie or at least a television series; it seems like the sort of historically illuminating, intersectional niche there is a booming audience for. If it happens any time soon, I hope someone other than me thinks to cast Alex Jennings as E.T.C. Werner. My purely fantasy casting is Denholm Elliott, but a checkered past and a certain level of obsessiveness will do that to a character. Jennings is quite good at both of these traits, anyway.
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