French Lessons
Prestige Hong Kong|May 2017

STEPHEN MCCARTY discovers the dark side of jazz-era China.

Paul French

HAD DASHIELL HAMMETT ever sent Sam Spade on an outlandish busman’s holiday to the mysterious, mesmerising Orient, 1930s Peking would have been the setting par excellence for a crime of the deepest noir.

Die-hard Depression-era detective Spade would have set about snaring the perpetrator of a grisly murder committed against a golddust backdrop for any novelist or screenwriter, one pulsating with the sabre-rattling of the warmongering Japanese, the glamour of the foreign enclave of a fabled city and the glittering existence of its privileged class, and even a “love cult”. A backdrop trembling from the fallout of a vicious attack on the daughter of a former British consul and the dumping of her battered body below a supposedly haunted watchtower on the old city walls, from where supernatural terrors invaded the dreams of an already feverish society braced for corporeal horrors.

Such a script might have been ready made for Spade, but he was fictional. In the real world, just such a murder took place, yet in the subsequent chaos of conflict and conflagration it was buried in official records and forgotten, its victim unavenged and her killer never unmasked. Until one intrepid investigator changed all that, reviving a trail that had been cold for almost 75 years. His name was Paul French.

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