Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart is a beautifully-written mystery set in early 18th century China. Li Du was once an imperial librarian in the Forbidden City, but he has been driven into exile and has lived as a wandering scholar for three years. When he arrives in the city of Dayan, in a mountainous region near the Tibetan border, he finds the city full of visitors, awaiting the arrival of the emperor, who is coming to preside over an eclipse of the sun. Li Du stays at the mansion of his cousin Tulishen, the city’s magistrate, who is ambitious and hopes to receive a more prestigious post in the capital. When a Jesuit astronomer, another guest at the mansion, is found dead, Tulishen at first insists that his death was natural, then, when Li Du finds evidence that the man was murdered, blames it on Tibetan nomads. But Li Du knows that someone in the mansion murdered the Jesuit, and decides to investigate, with the help of Hamza, a Turkish storyteller who had traveled with the dead man. Tulishen tells him he must find a solution—any solution—before the emperor arrives, so as not to spoil the festival. In his investigation, Li Du finds many suspects, including Tulishen himself, his scheming consort Lady Chen, his ever-efficient secretary, the mansion’s librarian, who is a member of Dayan’s former ruling family, and Nicholas Gray, a merchant with the East India Company who is presenting the emperor with a magnificent astronomical device in order to convince him to open up trade with his company.
Elsa Hart brilliantly evokes the world of 18th century China: its people, traditions, customs, and landscapes. This was a precarious period in Chinese history. The Qing dynasty has only recently come to power, and they are not Chinese, but Manchu, so there is much opposition to them. The only Europeans the emperor trusts are the Jesuits, even though the Dominicans are trying to replace them. Hart’s writing brings this time and place alive for the reader. There is a breathtakingly beautiful scene early in the book where Li Du is on a mountainside, trying to decide whether to go on into Tibet or turn back to investigate the crime, which is one of the most lyrically-written scenes I have come across in a mystery for a long time. Li Du is a fascinating character. The reason for his exile is not explicitly spelled out, and I’m sure we will find out more about it later in the series. I am looking forward to Li Du’s further adventures.
Jade Dragon Mountain can be borrowed from the Shapiro Undergraduate Library: http://mirlyn.lib.umich.edu/Record/013858861 or from the Recreational Reading collection at the Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library: http://mirlyn.lib.umich.edu/Record/013915121