Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The White Mirror by Elsa Hart

Minotaur Books, 320 pages, $16.99 (c2016)

I don’t usually read one book after another in a series, but Elsa Hart’s Li Du series captivated me. Because I missed the debut when it came out, I’ve been playing catch-up. The book after “The White Mirror, “The City of Ink,” was just released, and I hope to get to that soon.

Li Du is the enigmatic Chinese Sherlock Holmes-like character created by Elsa Hart in her debut novel, “Jade Dragon Mountain.” “The White Mirror,” the follow-up to that book, takes place eight months later. Li Du finds himself trekking up the mountains of Tibet, continuing his quest to find himself. Then an unforeseen snowfall traps him and the death of a monk intrigues him.

In the early 1700s, China was a world force, a mysterious destination for Europeans bent on both economic and religious conquest. The Jesuits brought science to the Chinese court. At home, they engendered envy and enmity by other Catholic sects.

Li Du learned Latin from the Jesuits in court, because Li was an up-and-comer in his youth, destined for administrative greatness in the Emperor’s empire. Because of a mentor’s arrest for treason, Li became disgraced by association and was exiled. In “Jade Dragon Mountain,” he solved a crime and was rewarded by reinstatement into the good graces of the Emperor. Still, Li Du has decided to continue his trek over rural paths and into remote valleys.

Author Hart has a great touch with providing a historical context and a fresh sort of story. Here she presents her version of a locked room mystery when Li Du is trapped by a heavy snowfall in a Tibetan manor — actually more a farm holding rather than what the word “manor” brings to mind — with disparate characters, including a recent acquaintance, storyteller Hamza, along with the muleteers and guides who are taking them to Lhasa (he hopes), the hardworking lord of the manor, the lord’s family (also hardworking), and various monks, manor hands, eccentric neighbors, and fellow travelers.

The first thing Li Du and his traveling party realize is that the monk who looks from a distance to be welcoming them on the bridge to the manor is instead very, very dead. On his chest is drawn a blue and white circle. It is later identified to be a stylized white mirror, drawn to ward off evil. What drove the monk to kill himself? Or could someone have murdered him?

As Hart uncovers layers of plot, she also warms up the land to melt the snow. Li Du must find out who is behind the nefarious deeds in the remote valley before the routes are clear and the villain or villains scatter.

Once again, Hart deftly describes a culture and rugged landscape which is very different than that found in the U.S., but with characters whose foibles and fancies are more than recognizable. And once again, Hart has produced a wonderful book.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart

Minotaur, 336 pages, $25.99 (c2015)

At the end of “Jade Dragon Mountain,” Elsa Hart writes about the circumstances that led to her writing the book. She was living in China at the time with her husband, who had a project based there. She lived in a remote village and it inspired the setting for the first Li Du mystery. Hart’s background is a great story in and of itself.

I missed this series when it first began in 2015, but I plan on catching up ASAP.

Li Du is a fairly young librarian in exile in early 18th century China. Hart touches on some of the convoluted political machinations that led to Li’s exile from Beijing. On the surface it appears he was innocent of sedition but had the misfortune to have rebellious acquaintances. All was not revealed in this first book, so I hope one of the other books contains more information. It doesn’t matter now, because the point is Li is an ex-librarian, a full-time observer of the world, a scholar, a wanderer, and an inquisitive soul.

Reluctantly, Li finds himself in Dayan in a remote corner of the Chinese empire. His cousin is the magistrate there. He is much older than Li, resentful that Li received more attention because he showed intellectual promise, smug in Li’s fallen status, and more than happy to sign the papers allowing Li to move on to other areas. Then a fellow traveler succumbs to poison, and Li forces his cousin to recognize that Jesuit priest Pieter van Dalen was murdered. That’s the last thing the magistrate wants to hear because the emperor is scheduled to visit.

After a year of traveling, the emperor is drawing close to Dayan. He has come to cause the sun to disappear. We would call that an eclipse, but the emperor wants his subjects to recognize his divinity by commanding the sun to disappear, in a heavily ritualized and dramatic fashion, of course. (And then reappear.) Li must solve the murder before the emperor’s arrival. (And preferably be long gone by then.)

It is not a very well-kept secret that the Jesuits have brought their science along with their religion to China. It is they who provide the emperor with the calendar of celestial events that he uses to “control” the skies. Could someone have resented the Jesuits' influence on the emperor and taken it out on van Dalen, an astronomer? Joining forces with a traveling storyteller, Hamza, Li delicately investigates, mostly to satisfy his sense of right and wrong. 

“Jade Dragon Mountain” is well-written with a strong sense of place. Hart’s descriptions are evocative, her presentation of court customs beguiling, and her plotting satisfying. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it certainly would have earned an MBTB star in 2015!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bellevue Square by Michael Redhill

Doubleday Canada, 262 pages, $27

It must be frustrating to be a well-regarded author whose works become eclipsed by the writings of a pseudonym. Inger Ash Wolfe, Michael Redhill’s pseudonym, found an American audience. Michael Redhill has not. Both authors are better known in Canada, home to both Redhill and his nom de plume. And that may be a problem — an identity crisis — that has driven Redhill to write “Bellevue Square,” apparently the first in a “triptych of novels called Modern Ghosts.” Redhill seems to be haunted by his own creation.

Redhill essentially disables his alter ego in this book. If this presages no more books by Wolfe, I will mourn her death. I am enamored of Wolfe’s quirky, entertaining, often gruesome crime books. By winning the lucrative Canadian Scotiabank Giller Prize for “Bellevue Square,” has Redhill received establishment permission to permanently partition off a part of himself, to professionally murder Inger Ash Wolfe?

Jean Mason, the main character in “Bellevue Square,” begins life as a normal, somewhat boring bookstore owner in Toronto with an ex-police officer husband and two young sons — formerly of the same town as Inger Ash Wolfe’s protagonist Hazel Micallef. In increasingly bizarre and anxious revelations, Jean becomes aware of a doppleganger afoot in Toronto, the elusive Ingrid Fox. Who is she becomes what is she. Well, she apparently is the first “modern ghost” of Redhill’s intended future opus.

There are seizures, hospital stays, an ineffective therapist, and baby Aspirin — medical red herrings to explain Jean and her twin, perhaps? Or does Redhill go down a bumpy horror or science-fiction road? I guess we’ll have to wait for the rest of the “triptych” to reveal the underlying theme.

My sense that doom hangs large over Inger Ash Wolfe leads me to give a puzzled thumbs down to a book that as far as I know hasn’t even been officially released in the U.S.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Viking, 528 pages, $28

I am among the Tana French fans who yearn for the next book as soon as one is finished. I love the consistency of her inconsistency. I love how the only thing you can count on with French is how you will eventually stumble across the unexpected. She can mix the natural with a hint of the supernatural, the striving to be good with the lapsing into the bad.

Rich, poor, lucky, unlucky Toby is our narrator. He was born blessed and cursed by a charm and glibness that hasn’t forced him into understanding his deeper character. Then one day he is attacked, an attack so vicious that he is left with longstanding physical repercussions. His memory and sense of self seem to be faulty. Who is he now that he cannot rely on being what he was before? That may be convoluted syntax, but it is an accurate question. Anyway, French loves the convoluted.

While he is recuperating, Toby repairs to Ivy House, where his Uncle Hugo lives, with his girlfriend Melissa. Toby and Melissa are also there to take care of Hugo, who is in the last stages of an incurable illness. Ivy House is where Toby spent his summers with his cousins Susanna and Leon, as his careless parents, aunts and uncles frolicked in sunny climes. Hugo was the preferred de facto parent anyway. As the cousins grew older, teenage bacchanals raged in Hugo’s immense back yard garden. Is it any surprise that in the end the garden itself harbored a terrible secret?

The police have been a periodic presence in Toby’s life recently. They are still trying to find out who attacked him. Then other officers and detectives are called in to unravel the secret of the wych elm, the expansive, dominating presence of the garden. The elm has spit out a nasty little bit which must be dealt with by everyone. In a metaphor for Toby’s extended family, I suppose, the elm is cut down in order to examine the diseased parts.

Frankly, it’s not so much about the crimes, one of which takes a backseat to the other to the point of almost disappearing. It’s about the people. It’s about whether Toby is an unreliable narrator, so unreliable even he doesn’t realize the scope of his veracity. It’s onion-peeling time for French. And I don’t mean that in a culinary sense.

French excels at exposing the past to inform the present. No one is innocent or without a secret. “The Witch Elm” is a long book, and at times I pleaded for French to get to the point. That may say something more about me than French’s writing, however. It is in her nature to paint layer upon layer, so what you expect is turned about by what is next revealed.

Where are you now, Toby? Who are you now? In the very end, we must once again adjust what we think we know, and that is French’s ultimate present to her readers.

Oh, okay, it’s Tana French, so MBTB star — although, nasty bit that I am, it was too long!