Interview: author Graeme Sheppard on reopening Pamela Werner's 1930s murder

The retired police officer sheds new light on the brutal unsolved crime

Photograph: courtesy Earnshaw Books
Years after historian Paul French claimed to crack the unsolved 1937 murder of Pamela Werner in Beijing, concluding – spoiler alert – the murderer to be an American dentist, in his critically acclaimed non-fiction novel Midnight in Peking, British police officer Graeme Sheppard opens the historic case once more and lands on a different suspect. As his first book A Death in Peking hits shelves, Sheppard talks about his investigation and ‘who really killed Pamela Werner’.

As a UK-based police officer, what was it about the historic, Beijing murder investigation of Pamela Werner that piqued your interest for your first book?

My wife’s grandfather happened to be consul in Beijing at the time, she [asked me to read] Midnight in Peking... It was a good read, but I just thought [the conclusion] could not be right. Something about my police experience told me it was wrong that Pamela’s father ETC Werner had succeeded at identifying suspects where the police had failed [as Midnight in Peking suggests]. I went to the national archives, looked up Werner’s letters to the Foreign Office, which Midnight in Peking was based upon, and took it from there.

Given that the crime was committed over 80 years ago, how did you start re-investigating the case?

Using my police experience, I cast a net wide in search of evidence. There were books, memoirs, personal records, army service records, missionary church documents, letters between embassies, all from archives across the world. I even managed to speak with children Pamela had lived with just prior to her death who are now in their 90s, which was excellent first-hand evidence.

Did you have any apprehensions about challenging French’s conclusion in Midnight in Peking?

I spent years collecting evidence. I’m confident about getting closer to the truth because I used a far wider source base, and didn’t simply follow the murder theories of Pamela’s father [like Midnight in Peking does]. Werner was a man who was in no way objective, had a long history of having trouble with the truth, and was described by his contemporaries who knew him well as being ‘morbidly suspicious’, ‘maniacally quarrelsome’ and ‘completely mad’. [Werner] also decided upon the guilt of his suspect, and then went about collecting evidence to support that guilt, which evidentially put things the wrong way around. I could not conceive how police had missed suspects that he had identified. That was my principal reason for investigating further – to see where it had gone wrong for the police.

But the emphasis that I want to give is that [A Death in Peking takes] an evidence-led approach. It’s a very different book to Midnight in Peking, a different genre really. This is an investigation as opposed to a narrative. I don’t wish to be negative about French, but there’s a lot of creativity in [his work] and mine is strictly non-fiction.

Is there a chance that we still don’t know 'who really killed Pamela'?

I keep an open mind as one should. There could be more evidence out there… and archive material in China yet to be found, but I doubt whether it would change matters radically. I am confident in my research and the strong likelihood is that the murderer was a teenage friend that was a Chinese student from her past.

What’s next for you?

I have another project being developed. [While researching] you come across stuff that is fascinating, but unfortunately not relevant to the book. It’s frustrating… however, that’s led me to another project, so there’s a good spin-off. But at the moment I’ll have to keep my cards very close.