Paul French delved into the National Library’s and the National Archives’ materials and brought to the world two riveting true-crime tales Midnight in Peking (
currently being developed for a television series) in 2011 and City of Devils in 2018.
We pulled up a chair with Paul to talk to him about his finds in Singapore’s archives.
1. What motivated you to write a true-crime genre in China?
Paul: I very much wanted to write books that appealed to really broad audiences globally but that would teach people more about modern Chinese history through strong period-set narratives. I thought that the crime and true crime genres are a good way to go as readers everywhere seem to enjoy crime novels and, so it is said, we are currently in a “golden age” of true crime writing (with the success of people like Erik Larson and David Grann particularly). I hope readers find the stories in Midnight in Peking and City of Devils compelling, but also learn a little about Chinese history between the world wars too.
2. For Midnight in Peking, what led you to search for information in Singapore?
Paul: Midnight in Peking is the story of the murder of a 19-year-old english girl in Beijing in January 1937, just before the Japanese invasion of China that summer. When I looked in the newspaper archives at the National Library, I saw that the murder and the subsequent police investigation were covered in the local Singapore newspapers which indicate it was a massive story at the time. Of course, Singapore was a British colony at the time and so the murder of an English person in Asia was perhaps bound to be big news everywhere regionally.
The Singapore archives helped me to see the murder as not just a China story but a story of being western and living in the “Far East” just before World War Two. I thought that was an important aspect to get across in the book for readers internationally who might not be aware of the foreign communities across Asia in the 1930s.
4. How have you used the materials in the National Library of Singapore/National Archives of Singapore in your books?
Paul: My first question around Joe, and his wife Nellie Farren, was how and why did an Austrian ballroom dancer and his Russian émigré wife come to live and work in Shanghai around 1929?
The answer was that they came to Asia from Europe on a theatrical tour of the region showing people in Asia how to dance the new, popular dances (foxtrots etc) in Europe and America. The archives in Singapore are full of old advertisements and reviews of Joe and Nellie dancing in Singapore from as early as 1923 until 1928 when they left for Shanghai. The archives in Singapore effectively gave me a crucial component of Joe and Nellie’s “backstory”.
5. What are some interesting finds you came across in the National Library of Singapore/National Archives collections?
Paul: Well, I knew very little about Nellie but did come across some rather scandalous stories in the 1920s Singapore press about how she was arrested and taken to court by a man for having gone to a dressmakers and charged a large amount of tailored clothing to his account. It’s tricky to get to the bottom of the story – was she conning him, stealing from him or were they in a relationship, was he a fan? I don’t know the end of the story (yet!) but it tells me something about Nellie’s life and character – how she survived and thrived and got into trouble and became somewhat notorious in 1920s Singapore.
6. Do you start your research knowing what you’re looking for, or are your finds more serendipitous?
I only know names, vague dates and not much more. Sometimes an article from somewhere else, perhaps a Chinese or a Japanese newspaper, will mention Singapore and so I look in the Singapore archives. So most finds are serendipitous. However, what I have learnt writing Midnight and Devils and other work on the inter-war period is that Singapore was so important as a “hub” – everyone seems to have passed through Singapore travelling between China and Europe so they always appear on ship passenger lists, which I usually first see their name and “arrived at Singapore” connected.