The grisly 1937 murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner was first “solved” by Paul French’s award-winning Midnight in Peking.
Published in 2011, French’s book was a minor sensation, a lurid rickshaw ride through the fetid nether regions of Beijing society. Now a rival publication by fellow Brit and former policeman Graeme Sheppard claims to overturn that rickshaw and set the record straight.
A Death in Peking: Who Really Killed Pamela Werner? eschews the sensationalist flourishes which made its predecessor an international bestseller, and instead takes a “just facts” investigative approach to solving the decades-old mystery of how the mutilated remains of the teenage Werner ended up near the Fox Tower in Beijing, outside the Legation Quarter. Despite a joint Sino-British investigation, followed with considerable global interest, the case petered out in the face of bureaucratic resistance, and the culprits were presumed to have escaped detection amid the chaos of war—until the publication of Midnight in Peking.
Sheppard brought 30 years’ experience with the Metropolitan Police to bear on French’s book, and, he writes, “immediately saw the narrative and its conclusions were deeply flawed. Evidentially, the conclusion didn’t stand up, and with my professional curiosity aroused, I set about investigating the crime myself.”
Sheppard also has a personal connection to the murder. His wife, who apparently prompted his initial curiosity, is the granddaughter of Nicholas Fitzmaurice, who was British consul in the Chinese capital at the time of Pamela’s murder, and presided over the inquest. While Midnight in Peking never singles out Fitzmaurice for criticism, the consul does not come off in the best light for his handling of the case. A long-standing feud between Fitzmaurice and the victim’s father, former British diplomat and famed sinologist Edward Theodore Chalmers (E. T. C.) Werner, may have affected both Fitzmaurice’s judgment and Werner’s own impressions, which are detailed in London’s National Archives.
French’s book suggests their feud started over the removal of ancient texts and artifacts from the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang by archeologist Aurel Stein, which Werner thought was akin to looting; Fitzmaurice had taken the more conventional view of the time by supporting Stein’s expedition.
Indeed, if there exists a subtext—and not a subtle one—to Sheppard’s book, it is that Werner was a crank, a coot, and an entirely unreliable source.