So many of us enjoy time spent with a good book and a warm blanket during the long nights of winter. This librarian is no exception. I’m currently immersed in “Jade Dragon Mountain,” a mystery novel by Elsa Hart.
The story transports me from the icy flats of Ohio to the misty hills and forests of Dayan, a Chinese town on the Tibetan border, where a murder takes place just before the Emperor is due to arrive for a grand event. And get this — the amateur detective in this novel is a librarian.
A detective story, “Jade Dragon Mountain” also offers well-researched historical fiction set in early 18th Century China. Li Du, an exiled scholar librarian, becomes involved in the mystery first out of curiosity, then by official demand. A Jesuit priest has been poisoned, and Li Du has only days to uncover the killer before the emperor, who has already banished him once, arrives to lay further blame and punishment.
Remarkable suspects quickly emerge, and their possible motives involve political power, personal secrets, and enormous wealth to be had as the East India Company arrives to claim a fortune in the tea trade. Hart fills her tale with details about Chinese dynasties, Asian trade routes, early astronomy, and the inescapable complexities of East-West cultural interactions — even about the proper way to brew tea. She writes descriptively, almost poetically, and though events occur in a matter of days, she makes no haste in the story telling.
Readers who enjoy Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” novels will find in Hart’s debut an Asian variation on the Penny formula. A thoughtful, complex detective relies on intelligence, rather than heavy firepower to uncover scoundrels. And, like Gamache, Li Du is a kind of outsider who makes meaningful connections with odd, gifted, secretive and imaginative people around him. Their stories are tantalizing, but not perfectly reliable.
Among his many talents, Li Du can discern the truth embedded in the lie. It’s not surprising that Penny provides a strong review, calling “Jade Dragon Mountain,” a “stunning in its atmosphere, setting, the gift of language, and great writing.” I agree.
We’re still in the middle of Ohio winter, so I am planning my next escape through the second Li Du novel, “The White Mirror,” in which our hero journeys to the mountain wilds of Lhasa. Who knew librarians were so adventurous. Well, librarians knew.
When visiting the Fairborn Community Library in January, check out our display of mysteries to keep you awake and turning pages on long winter nights. Or ask our reference librarians to help you find suggested titles in our nifty NoveList database. Or just ask me what I’m reading.
Ann Cooper is the head librarian at the Faiborn Community Library and is a guest writer for the Fairborn Daily Herald.