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Review: Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart
Minotaur, 2015. 321 pp. $18

In 1708, Li Du, a scholar banished from Beijing for political reasons, enters Dayan (modern-day Lijiang), a major town in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, along the Tea Horse Road, the caravan path by which that all-important beverage travels. It’s a dangerous frontier, where, outside the city, bandits freely ply their trade, and a region only recently brought within Qing imperial power, whose Ming predecessors still inspire loyalty. But Li Du has no intentions of staying there a minute longer than he has to, especially since a cousin of his, Tulishen, serves as magistrate, witness to his family shame of exile.

Ernest Henry Wilson’s 1908 photograph of two men laden with “bricks” of tea, Szechuan Province, China (courtesy Arnold Arboretum Archives, Harvard, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, according to the law, the wandering scholar must present his travel papers to Tulishen, and once he does, he’s drawn into an insidious plot. A Jesuit priest, Father Pieter, is found dead, and Tulishen rather quickly decides that the elderly cleric died of natural causes. Li Du, who met the Jesuit only briefly yet came away impressed, believes the man deserves justice, and when the circumstances point to murder, the exile reasons that his cousin has ample reason to pretend otherwise. The emperor will arrive in Dayan in a week, and Tulishen is responsible for managing the lavish festival of welcome. The magistrate hopes to make such a strong impression that he receives an appointment in Beijing and can leave Dayan, which he detests.

Moreover, the emperor’s visit will coincide with a solar eclipse, which must appear to occur at imperial command (though insiders know that Jesuit astronomers provide him with the calculations and predictions that permit him to act out the charade). Through that, he hopes to consolidate his power in the region. But a suspicious death — especially of a Jesuit astronomer, as Pieter was — would cast an unlucky pall on the festival and the imperial political designs. Nevertheless, you know Li Du will be called upon to investigate, and when he proves foul play to his cousin’s grudging satisfaction, he will be tasked with solving the murder before the emperor arrives.

I admire how Hart fits all the social, cultural, and political pieces together in a cohesive, authoritative whole. As in any good mystery, she has a collection of plausible suspects, each of whom appears in depth through Li Du’s eyes; you know their desires, weaknesses, and strengths. Aside from the protagonist, the many fine characters include the magistrate, his aide, a professional storyteller, the magistrate’s consort, a British envoy, a Jesuit botanist.

The mystery unfolds under a tense, short time frame, and you wonder, as Li Du does, how he can possibly make his deadline. Many complications and difficult characters provide stumbling blocks, and just because he has official sanction to investigate doesn’t mean he hears the truth. On the contrary; everyone has a secret to hide, but whether that vulnerability would motivate murder is another question.

So the novel is a classic mystery in that sense. But the narrative offers much more, because Hart knows the time and place inside out in all its sensations and cultural cues. Consider, for example, Li Du’s recollections of the tea-producing country:

He remembered… the lush mountains in which [the tea leaves] had grown, where heavy flowers stirred like slow fish in the mist. These leaves had been dried, knotted in cloth, and enclosed in bamboo sheathes, ready to be strapped to saddles and taken north by trade caravans.
As they traveled, they would retain the taste of their home, of the flowers, the smoke and metal heat of the fires that had shriveled them. But they would also absorb the scents of the caravan: horse sweat, the musk of meadow herbs, and the frosty loam of the northern forests. The great connoisseurs of tea could take a sip and follow in their mind the entire journey of the leaves, a mapped trajectory of taste and fragrance.

My only complaint about Jade Dragon Mountain is the climactic tell-all scene when Li Du faces a roomful of suspects. By now, I think that convention has tired itself out, and the way in which Li Du lays out his thinking strikes me as overly theatrical, a trait he decidedly does not possess — not to mention the way the suspects, all more powerful than he, somehow sit still for his presentation.

But the novel is a pleasure, from many angles, and though it lacks the humor of Hart’s later book reviewed here, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, I think I prefer this one.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from bookshop.org, an online retailer that splits its receipts with independent bookstores.