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Book Author: Elsa Hart

CITY OF INK by Elsa Hart: Book Review

Reading City of Ink, Elsa Hart’s third entry into the Li Du series set in 18th-century China, is like reading a long poem.  Her writing is so beautiful, so evocative of its time and place, that the reader must pause to take a moment to relish it.

Li Du is a government official who has returned to Beijing after a three year exile.  Although his results in the official examination for government officials were outstanding and had earned him a high position as a librarian and an esteemed place in society previous to his expulsion, Li Du makes no effort to reestablish himself when he comes back.

Instead, he accepts a much lower position as a secretary to the chief inspector of the capital city’s North Borough.  He offers no explanation for this decision, nor for his unexpected return from banishment, and after a few half-hearted inquiries his colleagues leave him alone.

But, of course, Li Du has his reasons.  His closest friend and mentor, Shu, had been convicted of being a member of a group trying to assassinate the emperor.  Shu was executed and Li Du, as his friend, was exiled.  His reason for returning to the capital and accepting a lowly job is to have the freedom and opportunity to examine the secret files about the coup and to prove Shu’s innocence.

Tile manufacture is a major industry at this time in China, and the Black Tile Factory is one of the most important ones.  Its owner is Hong Wenbin, a nice man when sober with a vicious streak when drunk.  And so when the bodies of his wife and a man are discovered in the factory’s seldom-used office, it appears obvious to the authorities that Hong had found the two having an intimate relationship and murdered them.

Hong protests that he was so drunk the evening before that he has no memory of what he did but swears that he would have remembered, even in his inebriated state, something as drastic as a double murder.   Li Du’s superiors’ desire for a quick and easy solution to the murders is upsetting to him, and he determines to look into the crimes without their knowledge or permission.

Elsa Hart’s portrayal of life in the Chinese capital is captivating.  She recounts scene after scene in such detail that the reader is transported there.  She describes, for example, the specific hats that must be worn by government officials to show their rank, the books that are read by members of the intelligentsia, and the fourteen gates to the city that are closed at night.  Such descriptions make the setting of City of Ink come alive.

And the depiction of the students taking the examinations that will mark them for success or failure in their lives –their frantic studying, their fear of failure, and the possibility that they are victims of a corrupt system–is outstanding.

Li Du is an admirable protagonist.  He is smart, caring, open-minded, and loyal, traits that are not necessarily admired in his society.  He is willing to consider new, Western ideas, as is evidenced by his friendship with Father Calmette of the Roman Catholic Church, but clever enough to keep secret his illegal search for documents that will clear Shu’s name.

The author’s third mystery featuring Li Du is a brilliant follow-up to the two previous ones.  You can read more about Elsa Hart at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN by Elsa Hart: Book Review

A mystery set in 18th-century Tibet and China.  What could be better?

Li Du is a brilliant man, a former librarian in China’s Forbidden City.  However, because Li Du was accused of being a friend to traitors of the emperor, he was exiled from the city and has spent the last five years traveling through the country.  He’s just arrived in the remote city of Dayan, close to the dangerous Tibetan border, anxious to continue his travels unimpeded.  First, however, he must get permission from the magistrate of the prefecture to proceed.

Magistrate Tulishen, granted honorary Manchu status by the emperor in recognition of his service to the empire, is ready to give Li Du the necessary papers.  But then things go awry due to a murder, missing valuables, and the imminent visit of the emperor, known as The Kangxi.

At the time Jade Dragon Mountain takes place, the emperor has many titles and is revered as a divine being, believed to have been chosen by the gods to rule the world.  It is thought by his subjects that nothing the Son of the True Dragon does could be unjust or incorrect, and there lies the reason that Tulishen needs Li Du to stay in Dayan through the royal visit.  The emperor, as his predecessors had done, has invited Jesuit priests from Europe to enter his kingdom, the only foreigners allowed to live in China.  It is not because he is interested in Christianity but because they bring scientific knowledge with them, knowledge that The Kangxi can use to impress the people of the country.

The Jesuits have predicted an eclipse of the sun on the day after the emperor is due to arrive.  The court has passed this forecast on to the citizens of the city as being the emperor’s own, so it must take place at the exact moment The Kangxi has said it would.  But murder and theft have thrown Magistrate Tulishen’s plans for an extravagant eclipse ceremony into chaos, so reluctantly acknowledging Li Du’s formidable intelligence and superior knowledge of the Jesuits, their scientific knowledge, and their religion, the magistrate compels him to stay and make certain that all goes smoothly.  Then Father Pieter is found dead.  The magistrate quickly declares it is a natural death owing to the priest’s advanced age, but Li Du is not so certain.

Jade Dragon Mountain has a wonderful cast of characters, each with his or her own agenda and secrets.  In addition to Li Du and Tulishen, there is the beautiful Lady Chen, the magistrate’s courtesan who wields a great deal of power in the palace; the elderly priest Pieter, whose knowledge of astronomy had made him eager to see the eclipse; Hamza, a traveling storyteller with an endless supply of tales; Brother Martin, another priest who has an impressive knowledge of botany but a surprising dearth of information about the funeral rites of his church; Nicolas Gray, an Englishman who has arrived in Dayan with a valuable, if secret, cargo; and Jia Huan, the secretary of the prefecture.

There is a wonderful sense of history and place in Jade Dragon Mountain, an amazing amount of knowledge beautifully expressed.  At the end of the novel is a question and answer section in which the author explains her interest in this area of China and how she came to write the book.  Her explanation is as fascinating as the novel itself.

You can read more about Elsa Hart at this web site.

You can check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.