Libraries and archives are like cousins: we belong to the same family, we look like one another and we have a lot in common. March’s ‘Library of the Month’ is an archive in Britain, London’s National Archives – and an author recently used material stored here to solve a seventy-five year old crime.
At Writers’ Week, Paul French (an English author with a North London accent that you could cut with a knife) spoke about his research for his book Midnight in Peking. French has lived in China for many years , but Midnight took him beyond the boundaries of Beijing and Shanghai and back to England, where the national archives hold ‘a thousand years of British history’, including the government documents relating to Britain’s relations with China. Investigating the unsolved 1930s’ murder of 19-year-old Pamela Werner, the daughter of a former British Consul, French came across
my real breakthrough, my ‘eureka moment’ …. in the UK’s National Archives at Kew in London. I was looking through a box of jumbled up and unnumbered documents from the British Embassy in China in the 1940s when I found a 150 page or so long document sent to the Foreign Office by ETC Werner, Pamela’s father. These documents were the detailed notes of a private investigation he had conducted after the Japanese occupation of Peking until he was himself interned by the Japanese along with all other Allied foreigners after Pearl Harbor. It was a fascinating document with a lot of new evidence as well as an impassioned plea by a distraught father for his daughter’s murder case to be reopened. However, his investigation fell on deaf ears – the British establishment in China had decided that Werner and his daughter’s killing were an embarrassing loss of face for Britain in the Far East while in London the Blitz was at its height and the war in Europe consumed everyone’s attention. Pamela, and her father’s investigation, were forgotten…until the day I turned up and asked for the files to be retrieved from Kew’s voluminous stacks. (1)
You can read more about the fascinating collections of the UK archives here – they contain historical documents from the Domesday Book through to MI5 files, a treasure trove of British history.
The May 2012 issue of Transnational Literature will include my full review of Midnight in Peking.