If you’re not familiar with Audible Original audiobooks, they’re an interesting form, somewhere between a book and a podcast. They work particularly well for author-narrators of non-fiction.
Paul French’s Murders of Old China covers the first half of the twentieth century. It tells the story of twelve murders where foreigners were the accused – and sometimes the victims too – and through them, provides an insight into the complex nature of relations in the country at the time.
In the opening chapter, French gives some context. In the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Britain imposed ‘treaty port’ status on a number of areas including Shanghai. This meant British citizens could only be tried by a British court established in China. Other Western nations had their own courts.
This brought to the fore the whole issue of justice for different nationalities and the way that Chinese people were disadvantaged in their own country when it came to crimes that involved both foreign and Chinese citizens.
This was also a time when people of all nationalities and none could come to Shanghai without showing any papers (European Jews and White Russians who were stripped of citizenship came, but then were unable to leave). It was a place of refuge for some but it was also a place rich in opportunity for traffickers and people leaving behind their criminal pasts.
It took me a while to get into the book but when I did I was hooked. It’s quite a different experience from, say, Serial or West Cork. Each chapter is about half an hour long so, although French has uncovered new information about the cases and the backgrounds of the protagonists, you don’t have the same twists and reversals as those longer form stories. However, taken together they build a fascinating picture because they illustrate different aspects of China and the people who made their home there.
Many of the crimes take place in Shanghai but other places feature including Hong Kong, Tibet and the Gobi Desert. They range across classes and nationalities: from the kidnap of a British investigative journalist with political connections, to the death of a sex worker whose nationality and even name can’t be confirmed with any certainty, from an American high society doctor accused of poisoning his wife in a story worthy of Agatha Christie, to the gruesome story of a Sikh police officer whose execution didn’t go to plan. They highlight both what was unique about this period and judicial system, and what makes it like crime everywhere – brutal acts motivated by sex, money and power.
The stories also highlight how the international courts undertook their difficult task. They wanted to be seen to be administering justice but there were also strong vested interests in protecting their citizens, as well as the racist and imperialist motives that underpinned their very existence.
Murders of Old China finishes with an interview of Paul French by his producer, where he talks about how he came to the stories and his career-long focus on this period across his journalism, books and broadcasting. (As someone who flits between interests I’m always intrigued by that level of commitment.) French explained how online archives and search methods have brought him evidence which would not been available to the courts at the time even if the political will had been there. He also said that because of his specialism in this subject he is often contacted by people with information about family members who were in China at that time.
French points out how China is a key part of all our lives, yet we know little about it and do not routinely learn about it at school. He expressed his hope that in offering entertaining stories about the country he will also help to bring us some more knowledge and insight. I certainly feel I got a deeper understanding of China in this period and it made me want to learn more.
I received a copy of Murders of Old China from the author.
View Murders of Old China on Audible
Enjoyed this? Take a look at my interview with Paul French, where he talks Shanghai, non-fiction noir and his favourite crime fiction.