French chronicles the real-life murder of Pamela Werner in 1937 in Beijing. The adopted daughter of a well-connected (if not well-liked) former consular official, China scholar, and old "China-hand," Pamela Werner is found mutilated one morning on the streets of the capital and the mystery of who killed her and why is the card that French keeps close to his chest throughout. The book straddles the razor thin line separating fiction and non-fiction.
The danger, of course, is that the story "becomes" history when it is very clearly not history. I'm not able to articulate in this limited space what exactly bothers me about this distinction but it does bother me and I kind of wish French had fictionalized more of the story, changed names, etc., and only told us in the introduction that it was based on a real case. As it is, it's imagined, fictional details that may or may not be important in between facts that are clearly historical and true-to-life.
Also, though there are some unrelated historical details noted that are not necessarily related to the case, I feel that the book could have done more with this: more about the political situation going on (which French only slightly touches on), about the uncomfortable role that the British and other foreigners held in China as it descended into civil war, about the social conditions and the very recent collapse of the Qing dynasty (again, which French notes but hardly delves into). French mentions some historical details but the fact that it's written more like a novel means that those details are presented awkwardly with 21st century hindsight.
|Eileen Chang's excellent collection, Love in a Fallen City|