Elsa Hart’s first mystery, Jade Dragon Mountain, was set in southwest early 18th century China, and featured Li Du, a sleuth. scholar and former Imperial librarian. Li Du has been exiled from Beijing for ostensibly consorting with the emperor’s enemies. He heads to the Tibetan border, to a city nestled in the foothills of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, where his cousin is magistrate. While the city is preparing for the huge honor of a visit from the emperor, a Jesuit astronomer is found dead. Li Du, in helping his cousin with the investigation, puts his own life in peril.
The next time we meet the now independent scholar Li Du, he is travelling with a caravan to Lhasa. They are detoured to a hidden valley where they find a monk sitting in contemplation on a bridge. The monk turns out to be dead, apparently a suicide. A strange symbol is painted on his chest. A storm whips across the valley and the caravan must stay with the local lord until the weather turns. Li Du learns that the dead monk was a reclusive painter whose family is not surprised by his death. But there are questions. Why did the caravan leader detour to this valley? As he pieces together the evidence that the monk was murdered, Li Du is again confronted by his own past, and comes to understand why he must return home.
Next, Li Du returns to Beijing to seek answers about the execution of his mentor. His search for the truth is interrupted by the discovery of two bodies; the wife of a factory owner and a man purported to have been her lover. While the official story is that this was a crime of passion, Li Du suspects something more sinister behind the murders. His past gets in the way and he is threatened with even more punishment than what he’s endured.
City of Ink, the third in Elsa Hart’s Li Du mystery series, is, like her first two mysteries, beautifully written and richly detailed. Hart’s characters form a cross-section of 18th century humanity, but the thieves, duplicitous government officials, cunning travelers, and money-grubbing businessmen would be right at home in the 21st.
Elsa Hart was born in Rome, Italy, but her earliest memories are of Moscow, where her family lived until 1991. Since then she has lived in the Czech Republic, the U.S.A., and China. She earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. She wrote her first novel, Jade Dragon Mountain, in the mountain borderlands of Southwest China, where her husband was doing botanical research. Can’t wait for the next Li Du Mystery!