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Book Author: Elsa Hart


Click “collections” on your browser and see what comes up.  There are collections of military memorabilia, comic books, netsuke figurines, musical instruments, baseball cards–the list is apparently endless.  It’s a harmless hobby for some (full disclosure–I collect miniature houses) and an obsession for others.  It can even lead to death.

That is the case for Barnaby Mayne, a wealthy 18th-century English collector of nearly everything.  His beautiful London home is filled with items from around the world; in fact, his residence consists of two adjacent houses because one could not contain all the items he owns.  Lady Cecily Kay has asked to use his extensive library to help her identify some items in her much smaller collection of plants and he agrees, but the day she arrives Sir Barnaby is murdered.

There was a scheduled tour of the Mayne mansion that day, with friends and fellow enthusiasts invited.  Lady Cecily is joined by Humphrey Warbulton, a collector trying to reach the upper echelon of Sir Barnaby’s world; Otto Helm, a visitor from Sweden who is an expert on serpents; Walter Dinley, Sir Barnaby’s much-abused assistant and curator; Giles Inwood, Sir Barnaby’s physician and close friend; and Martin Carlyle, another enthusiast.  The tour begins, and in the middle of it the nobleman is called away to respond to a letter.  The tour continues without him; later, when the group goes to the dining room for dinner, their host is not there.

Lady Cecily, Dr. Inwood, and Martin Carlyle then go to the study where they assume he is.  When they open the door they see Walter Dinley holding a knife in his bloody hand and the body of Sir Barnaby Mayne on the room’s floor.  “I-I killed him!” the curator says in a trembling voice.  “I will no longer…be…so disrespected.”

The next day Sir Barnaby’s widow, Lady Mayne, arrives.  The couple had lived apart for nearly all their marriage, and she has no interest in any part of his hobby.  Her late husband had left his entire collection to Dr. Inwood with the stipulation that it be kept intact, and Lady Mayne’s only wish is to clear both of her late husband’s houses of everything as soon as possible.

Before that can be done, however, a complete inventory needs to be taken.  That is where Cecily Kay and her old friend, Meacan Barlow, who was illustrating some of Sir Barnaby’s purchases, join forces.  But various mysterious incidents, as well as the disappearance of the confessed murderer, is hindering that.

The two women find themselves in the collectors’ world of bribery, lies, and religious mania, where gaining a rare specimen is more important than a man’s, or a woman’s, life.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is an insightful look into 18th-century London and the mania that collectors bring to their “hobbies.”  Lady Cecily Kay and Meacan Barlow are smart and talented women, making their way into a world that is not quite ready to recognize their achievements.  I hope to read more about them and their adventures in future novels.

Elsa Hart has traveled and lived in Rome, Moscow, and Prague, among other places.  Her earlier mysteries take place in 18th-century China, two of which are reviewed on this blog.  You can read more about her 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.

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.