It’s 1708, and the still-young Qing Dynasty is consolidating its power. The Kangxi Emperor, second in the dynastic line, plans a year-long journey to loosely-held Yunnan Province to secure the allegiance of the local people. He will arrive in 1708 in time for a mammoth festival, where he will predict the precise time of a solar eclipse. And this is the setting for Jade Dragon Mountain, a murder mystery set in 18th century China that is the first entry in Elsa Hart‘s series of historical novels featuring the scholar Li Du.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
A murder mystery set in 18th century China
Once, Li Du had held the prestigious post of librarian in the Forbidden City in Beijing. But he had spoken out in favor of other scholars who fell into disfavor with the court, and the Emperor condemned him to wander. Now “a man of middle age [who] wore old clothes that were neatly patched,” he arrives in the town of Dayan, capital of Yunnan Province. His cousin, who now calls himself by the Manchu name of Tulishen “as proof of his commitment,” is the Magistrate there. But the family connection confers no special privileges on Li. And when a visiting Jesuit priest is murdered, prompting Li to investigate, the Magistrate attempts to stop him. The Emperor is due soon in Dayan, and Tulishen worries that word of the murder will upset plans for the festival he’s planning.
Jade Dragon Mountain (Li Du #1) by Elsa Hart (2015) 370 pages ★★★★☆
A novel that spotlights a critical time in Chinese history
Jade Dragon Mountain is, in the purest sense, a whodunnit. Suspects abound. There’s Brother Martin, a younger Jesuit who arrived with the murdered priest. Hamza, the traveling storyteller in the same party. Sir Nicholas Gray, ambassador of the English East India Company. Lady Chen, who manages the Magistrate’s large household. Tulishen’s brilliant young secretary, Jia Huan. And Tulishen himself, among others. To uncover the truth, and ultimately to head off a threat to the life of the Emperor, Li Du must defy his cousin and risk his own life in an increasingly tense investigation.
About the author
Author Elsa Hart lived with her husband in Dayan (today called Lijiang) when he went there to conduct botanical research. She also dug into ancient archives in producing Jade Dragon Mountain. She succeeds in conveying a rich sense of life on the frontier of the Chinese Empire in the early reign of the Qing Dynasty. Of special interest is her portrayal of the Jesuits and the outsize role they played as astronomers in the Emperor’s court. Although the book is, pure and simple, a murder mystery set in 18th century China, in the final analysis it presents a snapshot of a little-known corner of that vast country at a critical time in its history.
For related reading
I’ve also reviewed the first in another series of detective novels set centuries ago in China. It’s The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee #1) by Robert van Gulik. My review is at A fascinating Chinese detective novel. (Interestingly, the storyteller in Jade Dragon Mountain speaks about Judge Dee.)
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