Gotham Diary:
Badlands
18 July 2012

Pamela Werner seems to have been an interesting girl even before she was murdered in 1937 — almost certainly in a brothel near Peking’s Legation Quarter, almost certainly by a crew of Anglophone sportsmen led by an American dentist. Born, probably to a White Russian refugee in 1917, she was adopted two years later, at the Portuguese orphanage, by a once-prominent couple, E T C Werner and his wife, Gladys Nina née Ravenscroft. In 1922, the adoptive mother died of an overdose of Veronal, but the ensuing scandal yielded no evidence of foul play. (It was probably suicide.) Pamela grew up to be as pretty as the run of blonde Hollywood chorus girls of the day (if her pictures are any guide), and she chafed within the confines of her scholarly father’s respectable house. She seems to have been thrown out of almost every school she attended, and was still going to school when she died, at nearly 20. (To be precise, she was home on winter break.)

Four days before her death, Pamela Werner was photographed at Hartung’s, a studio photography shop in the Legation Quarter. She wore a stylish black evening gown, elegant sandals, and an expression of ironic disdain. It was not the outfit of a schoolgirl. Unremarkable in itself, the photograph tells a familiar story, once you know Pamela’s fate. It’s the story of a girl who yearns to be a sophisticated, independent woman, and who grabs a chance at it without understanding the terrible risks to which acting without family support expose any attractive young woman even to this day. She thinks that she can handle it. She is wrong.

The case of Pamela Werner’s murder was never officially solved. Pamela’s father, strangely passive during the early investigations, began an impassioned and arduous search for justice only when it became clear that Chinese and British officials were not going to identify the culprit or culprits responsible. Years later, Werner and the man whom Werner believed to be guilty were both interned in the same prison camp on the Shandong Peninsula. Other prisoners would remember Werner pointing a finger at that man, Wentworth Prentice, and saying, “You killed her. I know you killed Pamela. You did it.” This is how the movie version would begin. At the end, the scene would be replayed, and now we would see Prentice.

The story of the investigation into Pamela Werner’s death is an interesting one, because its many contingencies dangle from the strange state of China at in the twilight of the warlords, on the eve of Japanese occupation. Because the dead girl was found outside the Legation Quarter, the British authorities, such as they were, lacked effective jurisdiction. At the same time, there was a presumption that the suspect would be a criminal type. At one point, a broken-down former bodyguard of North American background, called Pinfold, was brought in for questioning, He was released, against the investigators’ urging, by a consul who insisted that the evidence against him was inadequate. Properly pursued, Pinfold would have led directly to the murderer, but the higher authorities instintively protected this man — it would be better to say that they protected themselves from finding out anything incriminating about him — and the trails of evidence were ignored, the connections left unmade.

***

At the end of Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, author Paul French tells us how he came to write it.

It was when I came across a photo of [Pamela], on a cold morning in the British Library’s newspaper archives in North London, that I knew her story had to be told. I started writing. And then, by chance, while tying up the loose ends of some research in Britain’s National Archive at Kew, I stumbled across an uncatalogued file in one of several dozen boxes of random correspondence sent from Peking during the years 1941-43. The letters in the file had been recorded, acknowledged, filed and forgotten. There were some 150 pages of close type, with handwriting added by the author in the margin.

It took a while to work out what it all was: the details of the private investigation E T C Werner had conducted after the official one was halted. Peking was by then occupied by the Japanese, yet Werner’s search uncovered more than the detectives had found; it answered questions that they had been unable to, settling nagging doubts and bringing more light than the official inquest ever did. It took these lost letters of Werner’s to bring Pamela’s murder into focus for me.

Perrhaps this would be the first scene.

As those paragraphs suggest, Paul French writes in a style that is both straightforward and supply atmospheric. There is nothing lurid about his tale, no heavy breathing — not even when, in the early pages, Pamela’s mutilated corpse must be described. French’s tone is, on the contrary, inclined to the understatement of film noir. There is much that can’t be known, especially the answer to the question, “What was Pamela Werner really like?” She was almost certainly not like someone who had murder coming; at the same time, she was pretty clearly defenseless once she stepped outside the confinement of propriety and accepted the invitation to a party that her father, had he known of it, would not have permitted her to attend. The setting is exotic; it was thought to be exotic at the time, by the expats who knew it up close. But the crime, far from opening a window on imaginative depravity, is the all-too-familiar confrontation of inexperience with lust and desperation. No: what makes the crime interesting is the fecklessness of the official investigation. To call it a “cover-up” would be a gross exaggeration. But it was infected with all of the ambiguities and misunderstandings that made Beijing into yet another Chinatown.

Possibly because of a superficial resemblance between Werner and Edmund Backhouse, subject of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, I’m going to have to hunt down that very wild “Old China” story.