Li Du, former librarian and official exile, has a lot in common with a number of other detectives from across the mystery genre. He is a reluctant investigator. He is highly observant, able to reconstruct timelines based on a few pieces of physical evidence. Most of all, he is more concerned with finding out the truth that with practicing realpolitik. This last characteristic might not have been such a problem if Li Du hadn’t landed smack in the middle of the murder of a foreigner in Dayan (the Old Town of Lijiang) barely a week before the Kangxi Emperor will arrive for the triumphant conclusion of his year-long progress through the Qing Empire. Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart, plays out over that week almost in the style of a classic Golden Age British mystery. Obscure knowledge frequently comes into play. The detective astonishes other characters with seemingly psychic revelations. Even though Jade Dragon Mountain is set in 1708 and Li Du used to be an imperial librarian, I think he would have been good company for Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes—though he is much more polite than either of these gentlemen.
For decades, the Jesuits have been the only westerners allowed in China. But by 1708, there are Dominicans in Macau and the British East India Company is looking to open up trade by any means necessary. Li Du, however, is not aware of much of this, as he was been traveling by foot across the outskirts of China after being banished from Beijing for having made friends with the wrong people. He has only stopped in Dayan to have his papers stamped before moving on towards Tibet. The magistrate of Dayan is his cousin and the least the man can do is offer Li Du hospitality for a night. But then a visiting Jesuit astronomer dies in his room at the magistrate’s mansion, right in the middle of their preparations to host the emperor’s festival. Everyone except Li Du is eager to have the death written off as natural causes, but the former librarian keeps turning up undeniable evidence that the Jesuit was murdered. He just can’t reconcile himself to political expediency and allow the murder to be covered up.
Over the course of the following week, Li Du questions witnesses and suspects, ponders, deduces, ratiocinates, induces, and detects. By the end of the week, he has found out that the Jesuit’s death is not the only crime happening in Dayan. No one’s secrets are safe when Li Du is on the case. What tickled me most about Li Du’s style is the way he uses knowledge gained as a librarian to catch people in lies. One maid is caught lying about her mistress’s fearful reputation using stories cribbed from Dream of the Red Chamber. Another character is found with a bunch of forgeries among his diplomatic papers because Li Du can spot copied handwriting and stamps that were painted instead of actually stamped. I love seeing a member of my profession (even if Li Du is fictional) use our skills.
The ending of Jade Dragon Mountain leaves the overall story room to continue in sequels and I very much look forward to Hart whisking me away again to Qing Dynasty China in the company of a clever librarian.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 1 September 2015.