Jade Dragon Mountain
St. Martin’s Press
September 1, 2015
Elsa Hart’s historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain takes place in early 18th century Dayan, located in China’s southwest province. The Manchu Emperor, the Kangxi of the Qing dynasty is due in the city in six days to command a solar eclipse. For nearly a year, the Emperor has been traveling from Beijing to this outpost of his empire, while the local population has been preparing for his imperial visit and the wonder and power of the eclipse.
Li Du, the exiled and disgraced court librarian arrives in town, unaware of the Emperor’s upcoming presence and the festival to be held in the Kangxi’s honor. As an exile, Li Du must inform the magistrate of the province of his arrival, and obtain permission to pass through the area to his intended destination of Tibet. Tulishen is the province magistrate, and cousin to Li Du. When Li checks in with him, Tulishen is anxious to have his cousin leave the city before the Emperor arrives. It would be inappropriate for an exile of the court to cross paths with the Emperor, and Tulishen does not want to lose face.
But the magistrate allows Li Du to stay for dinner at his mansion. The town is abuzz with activity and visitors, and the magistrate has many guests. China is a closed country, with Jesuits being the only foreigners allowed in the empire. The Emperor favors the order because of their extensive knowledge, and the priests are eager to learn about Chinese history, customs and culture.
There are two Jesuits staying with the magistrate — Brother Martin and Brother Pieter. Other guests include the Arab storyteller, Hamza, who entertains with his tales and Sir Nicholas Grey an ambassador from the East India Company who is to present the Emperor with gifts, and perhaps gain trading rights within the empire.
The household is run by Tulishen’s favorite consort Lady Chen, who has yet to provide the magistrate with a son, Jia Huan the administrator’s efficient secretary, Old Mu the recordkeeper, Mu Gao, the librarian and Old Mu’s cousin, as well as various other staff, including the disgruntled but pretty maid, Bao.
Tulishen hosts an elaborate dinner for his guests, and Hamza provides the entertainment after the meal with his storytelling. Several people come and go during the story, including Brother Pieter, who is later found murdered in his room.
It is imperative that the murderer be caught before the imperial visit in six days. The magistrate calls on his cousin, Li Du, to remain in Dayan to solve the mystery of the murder.
False leads have Li traveling to visit the Khampa traders outside the town, interviewing members of the household, the guests, as well as a few outsiders. Hamza, who is staying at the same inn as Li Du, often discusses the case with Li. The motive for the murder is increasingly confusing and most believe Li Du will not be able to solve the crime prior to the powerful Kangxi’s eclipse.
At first, I was confused about the plot of the book. Jade Dragon Mountain starts with a brief history of the Yunnan territory, the reason for the presence of Jesuits, and background information on the Qing Dynasty. The story is told in 1780, but flashes back to the first decade of the century. Up until the murder, it wasn’t clear where the story was headed.
However, Li Du’s adventures lead the reader into the meat of the mysterious murder. As a historical mystery, the important role of the Jesuits, provincial and imperial politics and history, the inner-workings of a magistrate’s estate, and the politics of trade are explained.
The murderer is elusive, the rush to find the culprit is critical, and the suspects are many. The book was hard to put away when other priorities called. I found myself thinking about the characters and the country wile anxiously waiting to get back to Jade Dragon Mountain to learn more about the hunt and the era.
Once the story gains traction, Elsa Hart’s fast-paced debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain is an intriguing murder mystery wrapped up in historic background. Much is learned about China’s culture at the beginning of the 18th century while Li Du sets about solving the problem of the Jesuit’s untimely death. Elsa Hart is a new author worth following.
With thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.