Jade Dragon Mountain

Suggested by Brad Nelson • Li Du is an exiled imperial librarian. Arriving in Dayan, he finds the city preparing for a visit by the Emperor who will command a solar eclipse. But a sudden murder may embarrass his magistrate uncle. The uncle reluctantly assents to setting Li Du loose on the investigation hoping to clear it up before the Emporer’s arrival.
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5 Responses to Jade Dragon Mountain

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Note that there is a follow-up to this novel with Li Du: The White Mirror.

    Even though I have yet to finish this, I’m putting it up on the Bookshelf (which is a concise compendium of good things to read, not a full review of books, some of which might not be worth reading). I’m 41% into this one. And if it get’s no better, or completely falls of a cliff, this 41% has been well worth the time. If it’s a complete dog, I’ll remove this post (perhaps switching it to a full review).

    Mr. Kung could no doubt advise us in regards to the authenticity of some of the details, if not (more importantly) the overall Chinese Zeitgeist and aesthetics. As he has advised me before, even if a couple of Chinese absolutely hate each other, that would not preclude them from partaking in a formal tea ceremony together. There is a high aesthetic and sense of ceremonial order that pervades this novel. You are given glimpses of Chinese gardens, art, food, clothing, all of which seem to be in pure shades of gold, silver, red, and azure, often in motifs of dragons.

    There is much refined ritual in this book. And it is refreshing compared to our Marilyn Manson culture of freaks and vulgarians. That is not to say that China does not have its lower classes or its murderers (it clearly does in this one). Nor is it to say that it doesn’t pay a heavy price for the top-down order of its imperial style of society where the very words of the Emperor, by definition, are infallible.

    That he predicts solar eclipses with the secret help of his Jesuits in order to show his subjects his divine nature is just, as we might understand in our day, mere political theatre. But this is heady stuff for commoners who have little or no scientific background.

    Li Du is a wandering intellectual who wanders into Dayan where his uncle (or at least a relative) is magistrate. Li Du took no part in treason but had the bad luck of having befriended a few intellectuals who were. Li Du was thus exiled instead of executed. In this case, his family was spared quite a bit of shame because there is a custom whereby the wife, with the father’s permission, can have the marriage considered dissolved and he can prepare for her a new match.

    But for the magistrate, the shame is all too real. Despite being a magistrate in an important city on the main trade-route for tea, he thinks he is all but exiled himself to this remote outpost because of Li Du. And we don’t know enough yet in the book to contradict his view.

    So who done it? A younger and jealous Jesuit? The representative from the East Indian Company? The Khampa in the nearby hills who are known as raiders? The last relatives of the Ming who were replaced by the current Emperor when his horsemen invaded from the north and are known to reside in these parts? The magistrate’s clearly intelligent and calculating head concubine? The unknown forces scribbling scandalous accusation on the walls about the Emperor?

    The stage is set for Li Du to figure this all out. He is an unlikely Sherlock Holmes. He is soft-spoken, unexcitable, methodical, logical, and altogether unintimidating of a figure. Author Elsa Hart has done a credible job of defining the personalities of a few of the key players. Often this seems to be a chore for the mystery or crime-novel writer, something that surely made Agatha Christie a star. As much as I like reading the Thorndyke novels, R. Austin Freeman is hardly the master of literary characters. Although he tries, the men are often nearly undistinguishable from each other and the women are clearly hollowed-out representations of he fair sex.

    But Hart has, at least so far, shown some skill in creating characters. And this is precisely the kind of novel that lives or dies on the small and gentle details. You could sum-up in a paragraph what has happened 41% into this novel. But it’s the writing that is a pleasure to read in its own right.

    Well, we’ll see how this story holds up. Although his magistrate uncle wished to sweep the murder under the carpet and blame it on the Khampa (anything to avoid scandal and even the perception that anything is amiss), he relents to Li Du leading a quiet investigation into the affair. Li Du has found at least prima facie evidence that the Khampa had nothing to do with it. Word has leaked out in this regard (the magistrate’s household has more leaks than the White House) and so his hand is somewhat forced.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I would ask you to put Uris’s The Haj on the Bookshelf. I was simply going to recommend this previously, but decided I had more to say about it.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’m 62 percent into “Jade Dragon Mountain.” And what started out with a little literary tourism of 1708 China (and its politics) has devolved in a murder mystery little distinguishable from anyone else’s. That’s not to say it is without interest. But there is now nothing particularly original about it, nor does this now need to be set in China. This could be set in a manor house in England. It’s just the same widgets in a different place. That may change, of course. Perhaps this is why I like the Thorndyke mysteries. At least Freeman occasionally attempts to do something different.

    That is, the realism of the novel, which gave it some charm and readability — and certainly presented some cultural and historical facts that I did not otherwise know — has been doffed for conventionality. The conventional murder mystery contains these elements:

    1) A plethora of suspects. Perhaps this is why reverse mysteries are so intriguing because in real life, I doubt there are more than a couple suspects, if that.

    2) Red herrings and fluid suspicions. You’re steered toward suspicion of various characters, usually serially. Those familiar with mysteries know to put the greatest weight on those who are suspected early but have since apparently been cleared. Thus although my bet still remains on Lady Chen (the magistrate’s wife who will basically lose her lifestyle, as she knows it, if her husband is promoted to a more prestigious job in Beijing…she is of high station out in the outskirts of Dayan but would be way down on the pecking order among the magistrate’s wives, consorts, etc., he still has stashed in Beijing), one of the first to have been apparently cleared is a botanist traveling in the guise of a Jesuit.

    3) A public or semi-public murder at a function attended by many (but not too many). Relating to #1, all these suspects hang around for their interviews (or hang around because of the ongoing event), each of which tends to dig a little deeper as the sleuth uncovers info from others and is able to tighten the screws and catch people in lies. Which relates to point #4…

    4) Usually everyone has a motive to commit the murder as a labyrinthine network of past and present affairs, business dealings, relations, wills, conflicts, grudges, etc., are uncovered by the sleuth. What starts out looking simple is then turned into a spider’s web of dates, facts, events, and motivations that you need a scorecard to keep track of, if you can keep track of it at all.

    5) There’s usually a Peter Clifford (McCloud) or a Captain Doby (Starsky & Hutch) who is as dangerous to the resolution of the mystery as the machinations of the criminal are because of the sleuth’s superior’s insistence that he is barking up the wrong tree or should just leave things alone. Li Du’s cousin, the magistrate, fulfills this function.

    No doubt you can add more to the stereotypical elements of the over-used script of a typical murder mystery.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I finished “Jade Dragon Mountain” tonight and have already electronically borrowed the sequel, TheWhite Mirror.

    Although the mechanics of the murder mystery itself turned conventional, there were enough twists and turns, as well as a satisfying ending, to want to move onto the second book in the series. We’ll see how it holds up both as a historical novel and a mystery.

    I’m hoping there is more immersion in the culture and less ticking off of bullet points of the stereotypical murder mystery. In “Jade Dragon Mountain” we did not get to know many of the characters well. And a small spoiler coming if you want to be completely surprised, but one of the characters from the first novel (a gregarious storyteller) we did get to know a little about will be traveling with Li Du and the fake Jesuit priest back to India. We’ll see if their travels elicit the essence of Kipling’s “Kim” as they travel through the high mountains.

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