With WWII around the corner and a looming Japanese occupation as its backdrop, author Paul French breathes life into the long forgotten true story of an unprecedented and officially unsolved murder of a wealthy British girl who died brutally at the hands of a butcher in 1937 Peking, China.
I wanted to love this novel, I really did and part of me felt I was on the precipice of adoration, but I never fell. Love never came, only a minor fondness with a splash of disappointment. Not for lack of interest, in fact, the story was (at times) riveting, gruesome, sad, interesting and thrilling, but more often than not, it became tangled in a muddled retelling of Peking’s colonial history.
The author (French) paved an awkward path to the grand finale by weaving Peking’s last days of colonialism as the Japanese and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-sheck neared invasion, with character back story and the quest to find a brutally murdered teen girls killer. My concentration broke with the constant intertwining of regional history while trying to keep up with the names of dictators, police chiefs, communist sympathizers, American ex-pats, murder suspects and English diplomats. It’s not like I am a dummy, I just found the patterns and information scattered about distracting.
Towards the end, all of a sudden the story takes on a new life and I instantly became riveted. The focus of the story was placed solely on the murder and a fathers plight to find justice for his daughter (something that should have started about 100 hundred pages earlier). I started to appreciate where the path was leading only to find myself being pushed hastily toward the books finish. Revelations were thrown at me rather quickly and by the time I realized my ah-ha moment, French dragged me away kicking and screaming. Once more I felt short-changed.
Look, I see what the author was going for. He wanted to capture what Erik Larson did flawlessly with The Devil in the White City, but fell short. Don’t get me wrong, I finished it in a day and liked the murder investigation, it felt like reading a 48 Hours Mystery (thanks Lindsey for that analogy. It was perfect), but if it wasn’t for this blog and the way the book kicked into high gear toward the last 75 pages, I would have given up and put it down about half way through.
In no way am I discouraging anyone from reading it because it is well written and chock-full of deception, murder, corruption and Asiatic history, but I feel a warning is necessary for those who get bored easily with historical non-fiction. See for yourself and let me know what you think.
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