Italian-born author Elsa Hart lived in China for a time, absorbing knowledge of its history, customs and manners, and in her exceptional debut mystery, Jade Dragon Mountain, she evokes its essence for readers in often dreamlike, mesmerizing prose.
Scholar Li Du is in exile, wandering the geographic borders of 18th-century China, far from the imperial capital and his former role of librarian in the Forbidden City. Traveling alone, he arrives in the city of Dayan just a few days before a visit by the Emperor of China, an event carefully planned to demonstrate the ruler’s ability to predict a solar eclipse—a wondrous and frightening occurrence to be viewed by thousands, acknowledging the Emperor’s infinite power to command the heavens. Just before Li Du prepares to leave the city, an elderly Jesuit scholar is murdered in the home of a local magistrate, who insists Li Du delay his departure and apprehend the killer before the Emperor arrives.
The former librarian uses his observational acuity, scientific learning and familiarity with Jesuit culture to seek out the criminal. In this ancient culture where manners often conceal impulse, he begins to discover the secrets of those with a possible motive: a foreign merchant who brings wondrous instruments of science to entice the ruler; an anxious young priest; the magistrate’s consort, who finds her political power has become tenuous; a quiet and efficient secretary; and a traveling storyteller whose tales promise magic and mystery.
China’s ancient custom of taking tea is central to the Jesuit’s murder, and the author describes the journey of the leaves over many miles to reach the cities, as they absorb “the scents of the caravan: horse sweat, the musk of meadow herbs, and the frosty loam of the northern forest,” allowing those tasting the tea to “follow in their mind the entire journey of the leaves, a mapped trajectory of taste and fragrance.” A similar journey of the senses awaits readers of this book. The intricate, detailed mystery never disappoints, but Hart’s descriptions set the book apart, illuminating a world for readers to savor.
Jade Dragon Mountain is a compelling look into an ancient culture driven by intellectual curiosity, powerful symbolism and customs, overlaid by the gauze of appearances.