Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Paul French

author of Midnight in Peking

Ten Terrifying Questions

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1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I’m a Londoner born and bred from a long line of Londoners. However, a lot of my time seems to have involved getting out of London, first to university in Glasgow and then to Shanghai where I live now and have done for going on 20 years.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

Twelve saw me the tallest in the class so I thought maybe a London fire fighter – the uniform was cool and the big red fire engines obviously appealed. However the discovery that I didn’t like heights much put a rather rapid halt to that ambition.

At eighteen I did seriously think about the merchant navy. The London Docklands were still the Port of London then and you’d see boards calling for sailors willing to sign on to go to Accra, Istanbul, Taipei and I thought that sounded good. It’s also maybe where I first fell in love with the idea of Shanghai – it’s just about the most evocative word in the world to me.

Thirty saw me where I wanted to be – living in China, owning my own business and signing my first book contract. Of course then I just wanted to be 18 again!

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That I’d never fall in love but would remain young, free and single forever. It’s not the worst strongly held belief to lose but still…

4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?

As a young lad I read Kipling’s Kim – that convinced me that I had to somehow broaden my horizons and travel. I reread it every year when I get depressed about the amount of time I spend in soulless airports and cramped train carriages just to remind myself how thrilling travel can be!

At a rather underachieving North London school I got a new English teacher, Mr Marks, who gave us all a copy of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and told us to read it to obvious groans from the lads. I went home, read it, and didn’t stop till the end. I realised that you could take real events (in Brighton Rock it’s the razor gangs and all that) and weave a powerful story through those events.

It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered the novels of Alan Furst. However, after reading one I bought them all and now reread them all regularly. His ability to create an entire world (always Europe on the brink of the Second World War) intensely described and yet without layering on the details heavy-handedly is amazing. His injunction to research everything and then throw it all out when you start writing, to wear your research lightly, is a mantra for me.

5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?

Far from obsolete – but I rather think a simple book on its own is going that way. But Midnight in Peking includes maps of old Peking, loads of photos of the locations and characters plus there’s a great website (www.midnightinpeking.com)(launching soon) with more photos, videos of old newsreels and old parts of the city, links to old documents and newspaper articles relating to the murder investigation, an audiowalk…everything you need to really immerse yourself in the Peking of the 1930s either after reading the book or during. By the end of the book and all the other stuff you really should be able to smell the Peking of 1937…I hope!

6. Please tell us about your latest book… Midnight in Peking

Midnight in Peking is the story of the murder of a 19-year-old English woman, Pamela Werner, in January 1937. Her killing was never solved but the investigation was conducted during the last days of old Peking as the Japanese massed on the outskirts and then eventually invaded and occupied the city. Pamela’s murder became a metaphor for the attack on all of China. I have reinvestigated the case and believe I have the solution – I can’t say more than that obviously. But the book is also about a city, Peking, and the two foreign communities that co-existed, sometimes well and sometimes uneasily, within it – the privileged diplomats and businessmen in the walled and European style Legation Quarter and the foreign driftwood of prostitutes, pimps and opium addicts that lived in an area called simply “the Badlands”. Pamela’s murder brought those two worlds into violent collision.

Order your copy of Midnight in Peking from Booktopia, Australia’s No. 1 Online Book Shop – Click Here

7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?

Less looking at screens, more reading of books

8. Whom do you most admire and why?

John Le Carre – if I could create a character like George Smiley and then write a series of books like the Smiley novels I’d die happy. (BBGuru: To watch the trailer of the new George Smiley film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  click here)

9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

Solving a 75 year old murder in Peking is not ambitious enough for you??!!

But simply, to write a book (and hopefully then some more books) that leave people turning pages, being late for work, forgetting to eat, ignoring their partners and losing all track of time.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Never, ever, under any circumstances put pen to paper and start to write about anything that doesn’t completely obsess and fascinate you. Without a complete absorption in the subject you’re guaranteed that, at best, it’ll turn into a dreary and frustrating slog and, at worst, it’ll drive you mad and put you off writing anything else ever again.

Paul, thank you for playing.

You can follow Paul on Twitter here

And thank you James Bradley for lining this interview up.

5 Responses

  1. A superb page turner. More amazing, because I know Diana Dennis . I have lost touch with her but would like to find her in London’s West/End where she moved to from Kent some time ago. Any chance of finding her?

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  2. If I was a murderer (or a botched abortionist) hoping to have wild dogs dispose of a corpse, I would crack open the rib cage to expose the internal organs, which would immediately draw their attention and with luck draw a pack to tear it up.
    What did the death certificate say was the cause of Wentworth Prentice’s death?

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  3. Fascinated with Werner’s gorgeous wife, Gladys Nina Ravenshaw. Why marry him? Why no kids? Why contradictions re: hearty beauty vs. frail invalid? What did she really die of? Neurasthenia? Please. Also, although in many ways admirable, Werner himself a cypher and his unflagging pursuit of his adoptive daughter’s murderers has the tantalizing whiff of expiation. Obviously enormously complex situation. Whole ‘nother book.

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  4. I have enjoyed this book, and do not find the imaginative presentation annoying, au contraire it is an interesting development on the borderlands between true crime and crime fiction to recount a true crime with imaginative insight into what people may have felt and thought at the time. A new genre no less?
    I have only one caveat. This book was obviously written by a man! I would love to be able to ask Paul French why he did not pursue the, to a woman, glaringly obvious possibility that poor Pamela was looking for someone who could give her an abortion. If so, her murder followed the realisation that it had all gone wrong and she was bleeding to death. She may have wanted to go to a hospital and those concerned would have murdered her rather than allow this. The significance of the calling in of the expert in this area to her autopsy and the many references to her inner organs being removed, but no reference to her womb is indicative. The involvement of Miss Ryan in the case is left a mystery when she is just the kind of independent woman that Pamela might have been put in touch with. The silence of her friends, the obfuscation of the authorities, her talk with the one person who she might have believed moved in that kind of circle ie the businessman who had made a pass at her, the mystery about the note left at the hotel, the silence about the dentist having seen her professionally, her father’s sudden decision to remove her from school and send her home to the care of her female relatives, all these suggest an unwanted pregnancy, possibly caused by the school teacher, possibly caused by the man she had supper with on the night she died. It is possible that the row in the street with her father was caused by her bringing home a man to make this suggestion, rather than an over protective father seeing off an unwanted suitor.
    This is turning into a lengthy disquisition, but when you read the account with this in mind, more makes sense to me. Also it ties in with the mutilation of the Hollywood actress The Black Dahlia who was also the victim of a botched abortion and was found disembowelled to cover evidence of the crime. Horrible to think about it but it would be interesting to explore this possibility if the story is taken further. Poor old Pamela though, she sounds as though she would have grown up to be a really interesting woman.

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  5. In the midst of reading Midnight in Peking and having lived in Beijing during the Tiananmen 1989 events am enjoying it immensely. I have a copy of the map used in the inside covers. It was drawn by General Stillwell’s aide de camp Frank Dorn. Dorn published several books in this period and marched out of Burma with Stillwell during the war. You will see that he has a sense of humor in looking just north of the observatory at the east wall, there is a martini glass. This was where Dorn lived in Beijing, and he memorialized it on the map.

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