Elsa Hart, author of the critically acclaimed historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain and the recently released follow-up The White Mirror, answers some of CrimeHQ's questions about her Li Du series of historical mysteries set in 18th-century China, her writing process, what she's currently reading, and how readers can immerse themselves further in the wonderful history of China.
Your main character, Li Du, was an imperial librarian, but he was then forced into exile. What was his librarian job like? Why was he exiled?
As a librarian responsible for the care of precious books, Li Du has a nose for mildew and an interest in all forms of insect control. Before modern preservation technologies, keeping volumes in good condition required constant vigilance and care. Li Du would have participated in the sunning of the books, which took place during the hottest weeks of summer. His occupation also put him in close proximity to the foreign Jesuits eager to absorb the language, culture, and knowledge of the Chinese empire.
Li Du was exiled because of his close friendship with a man who was found guilty of treason. A sentence of exile was not uncommon for family and friends of known offenders, and Li Du was lucky to keep his life. He prefers not to think about the past, but in The White Mirror, he is forced to confront memories he has tried to forget.
If you could team up Li Du with any other detective, real or fictional, who would you choose and why?
I’d like to see Li Du work with an experienced, detail-oriented professional like Kay Scarpetta. They are two highly intelligent individuals with a tendency to repress feelings of guilt and culpability. I’d like to see them draw each other out. I think I’d bring him to her, as opposed to the other way around. Li Du would make a good time traveler.
What was the hardest part about writing The White Mirror?
The story takes place in an extreme environment, high in the mountains during a snowstorm. The sensible thing to do under such circumstances is to huddle together around a hearth, but in order to tell a story of murder, I had to find ways to isolate the characters from one another. I had to move them away from sources of heat and light, and create situations where events could happen in secret.
What’s your favorite line from The White Mirror and why?
“Pema reached out and touched a portion of the wall, tracing his finger around a rectangle of blue, then connecting one by one the stars surrounding it.”
This sentence comes at an important moment, and alludes to other worlds and times.
What do you want readers to think or feel after finishing this book?
I want each reader to find something in the story that is there only for him or her. For readers who have never read a novel set in this time and place, I hope the book sparks an interest to know more.
So what's next for Li Du?
It’s time for Li Du to face questions he has left unanswered. He knows he is heading toward danger, but he has made his choice.
For fans who want to further immerse themselves in 18th century China, where should they look?
Jonathan Spence’s nonfiction often reads like a novel. His Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man and Treason by the Book are both excellent.
In the realm of fiction, there is the famous Dream of the Red Chamber, written by Cao Xueqin in the mid-18th century. Readers eager for a window into life and society in 18th century China will be absorbed by the lush descriptions of food, decoration, entertainment, arts, and family structure.
For readers especially interested in the interaction of China, Tibet, and the West at the time, there are a lot of amazingly detailed and readable primary sources, including Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri, S.J. translated by Michael J. Sweet.
What are you currently reading? What have you just finished?
What are you currently binging on Netflix?
The last time I really binge watched a show was a few years ago, during my final semester in graduate school, when I started watching Doctor Who. I fell so completely into that world that I could not make myself leave it. More recently, I made my way pretty quickly through the first season of UnREAL, which isn’t on Netflix, but is well worth seeking out.
What would be your murder weapon of choice?
Poison seems unreliable—so much can go wrong. The cups can get switched around, and it’s easy for the wrong person to end up dead. I’ve always enjoyed the “in the Conservatory with the Knife” combination in Clue. It has a nice ring to it.
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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. The White Mirror is her second novel.