The first of three (so far) mysteries set in Qing Dynasty China, Elsa Hart’s Jade Dragon Mountain tells the engaging story of an exile who becomes a detective. Li Du, banished from the capital, finds a frontier town much busier than would be expected for such a remote place. The reason soon becomes clear: the Qing Emperor will shortly be arriving to demonstrate his divine power by commanding an eclipse. When a Jesuit priest, one of the few foreigners allowed in China, dies a few days before the Emperor’s arrival, Li Du becomes convinced that his death was not a natural one.
The political situation described in the novel is volatile, so there’s no shortage of suspects. Internecine squabbles between the Jesuit and Dominican orders, court politics, loyalists of the previous dynasty, and merchants scheming for a share of China’s wealth all play a role. Although I did guess the identity of the murderer, it wasn’t until late in the book—for most of the story, Hart kept me guessing.
A large part of Jade Dragon Mountain’s appeal is driven by its interesting characters. There’s Li Du himself, a scholar and intellectual determined to do right by a kindred spirit. There’s Hamza, a storyteller whose talent and gregariousness hide an enigmatic pass. There’s Lady Chen, an official’s consort whose ambitions may or may not line up with those of her patron. There’s Mu Gao, once the scion of a noble family, now reduced to a servant. A nativist secretary, a sickly botanist, and an avaricious representative of the East India Company round out the cast. Each character gives the sense of being the hero of his or her own story. Their actions flow from their motivations, giving rise to red herrings that feel realistic (as opposed to being shoehorned in so the author can check off a box on the “mystery story elements” checklist). And when the end of the book came, I was sad to say goodbye to them.