sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-08-06 05:30 am

Flowers in the daytime and Lucifer at night

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.
spatch: (Default)

[personal profile] spatch 2017-08-06 11:27 am (UTC)(link)
I remain stunned that no one has adapted Midnight in Peking into a movie or at least a television series

It seems to me that one of the major factors against adaptation is probably the lack of a comprehensive solution, even if the story follows both Werner's and French's investigations. Feels like readers would more readily accept and commit to reading a Whodunit without the actual who dun it than moviegoers committing to a two-hour film if they knew beforehand that the outcome was speculative at best.

I suppose there are satisfying exceptions to this and I'm too tired to go mind-spelunking, but all I can think of are films based on true and unsolved crimes which for the sake of the narrative create their own suspect and solution, often pulled from whole ass, like that dreadful Black Dahlia film from a few years back.
Edited 2017-08-06 11:30 (UTC)
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-08-06 02:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Data point -- my coworker complained to me this week that she'd enjoyed the first season of Serial, until it ended with the possibility raised that someone else had done the murder, and never picked the case up again (likely because the possibility hasn't been settled yet.)
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-06 02:43 pm (UTC)(link)
There's Picnic at Hanging Rock, but I can't think of many others. Altho part of the draw of that film is you can supposedly figure out what happened because all the clues are there. -- Which is sadly not true at all, the publisher just suppressed the author's original ending because it was SO BAD.

Or there's Rashomon I guess?

I remember the huge number of otherwise smart people who were STEAMED at the ending of Tana French's first book because while the cop solves the mystery, a mystery of what happened in his own past is never resolved (which is a theme in all of French's books). Many many people declared they would NEVER READ ANYTHING BY HER AGAIN, which is a shame because she's an amazing author.
Edited 2017-08-06 14:44 (UTC)
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2017-08-06 04:33 pm (UTC)(link)
That "STEAMED" puts me in mind of the conclusion of The Prisoner. Apparently, some significant portion of the viewing public had been expecting a James Bond-style wrap-up. And while there were a few such elements (the machine-gun battle, the rocket), the lack of good triumphing over evil -- or, indeed, any clear identification OF evil --led to extreme viewer dissatisfaction.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-06 05:39 pm (UTC)(link)

I dunno. Some people seem unhappy with even just one type of ambiguity.
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-08-06 08:57 pm (UTC)(link)
Not sure it's the same sort of thing, but I gave up on Martha Grimes' mysteries as a teenager in part because I felt as though she'd introduce several plot threads and then pick the most boring one to follow up, abandoning the others completely.
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-08-06 08:52 pm (UTC)(link)
From what I remember, Rashomon isn't even that ambiguous if you take the solution as being "the bandit's lust and the husband's jealousy caused them to read meanings into the wife's facial expressions that weren't really there."
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-08-06 02:35 pm (UTC)(link)
I actually have first-hand, though limited, experience of that kind of world. When I was eleven, my father was Visiting Professor of Canadian Studies at Kwansei Gakuin University, and we went and lived in Nishinomiya, Japan (it's near Kobe) for two terms. The university must have been quite wealthy in terms of land ownership -- they had a good-sized campus, some land in the mountains for field trips, and we were put-up in a house that was enormous by local standards, a Western-style except for the disused servants' wing that I'd sometimes explore.

A number of of the westerners I met there were, in retrospect, the equivalent of Old China Hands -- in particular the American couple who begged us to take the Trivial Pursuit game their relatives had sent, because they hadn't lived in the U.S. for twenty years and none of the pop-culture questions made any sense to them. Then there were several Japanese-Canadian couples, whose kids did or didn't qualify for dual citizenship depending upon whether their father or their mother was the Japanese parent; the Japanese Christian minister whose wife was a Mennonite (New Order) from the Prairies; the elderly Methodist siblings who were the niece and nephew of Canadian socialist politician J. S. Woodsworth, and who did their best to teach me to read katakana while I was there. I never met any of the Outerbridge family, who were still alive in those days but living in Canada, but I later read some of their memoirs and published letters. W. M. Vories, who'd designed the campus, was long dead, but even allowing for the hagiographic tone of the biography I found in our house, he must have been a remarkable man.

My own father got an odd kind of respect from the older university staff once they discovered that his father, a clergyman, had known the school's former president Dr. C. J. L. Bates, and had performed his burial service -- when our grandparents came in person for a visit, midway through the year, they were literally greeted with a red carpet and questioned for memories of the great man. Really it was a very strange year, the more I think about it.
Edited 2017-08-06 14:36 (UTC)
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-06 02:45 pm (UTC)(link)
It sounds rather Duras!
dhampyresa: (Default)

[personal profile] dhampyresa 2017-08-07 12:08 am (UTC)(link)
I love the title of this entry. Where is it from?
vr_trakowski: (Default)

[personal profile] vr_trakowski 2017-08-07 01:45 am (UTC)(link)
Unrelated to your actual entry--are you aware of this? Now You Can Stream Criterion Films with a Library Card

I don't know if it's available in your area, but you could ask for it, perhaps.