Friday, August 19, 2016

A librarian detective in 18th century China - on Elsa Hart's "Jade Dragon Mountain"

Mysteries! I was looking back at my old reading lists and noticed that when I discovered someone I liked, like Elmore Leonard, for example, I would read everything I could get my hands on. In his case, I even read the westerns. Eventually I'd burn out and let the author go but it could take years. If you are an Elmore Leonard fan, by the way, I would suggest you try Nicholas Petrie's The Drifter, just out in paperback. It's like Leonard on steroids. Todd and I have just read the next Petrie, Burning Bright, and it's a more straightforward thriller, but the reads are great and we're very excited for it's release next January. Let us reserve a copy for you.

Usually just one book in a series does it for me, even when I really like the book. I think about Case Histories, the classic Kate Atkinson novel. This book, which I didn't even know would be a series, was a hybrid, a literary-mystery mashup that was doing ten interesting things at once. It was a amazing and lots of other folks thought so too - back at Schwartz, we sold over 1000 copies the first year in paperback. I liked it so much I read the second Jackson Brodie too, and One Good Turn was excellent too, but to me, it was more of the genre than smashing the genre.

We host a lot of mystery authors, and that keeps me reading in the genre. But lately I've been reading mysteries even when we're not hosting the author. And the main reason for that is that mystery readers take suggestions, perhaps at a greater rate than any other kind of book that I read. If they read noir, that doesn't mean they'll take your advice on a cozy, and vice versa. But if you describe it right and find a book that overlaps with your taste, they'll try it. It was certainly the case for Shady Hollow, the mystery co-written by former bookseller Jocelyn and current bookseller Sharon, under the pseudonym Juneau Black. We've sold over 100 copies of the book after our event pop, and many of them have been to folks who didn't know either Jocelyn or Sharon.

So this led me to Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart. It's a first novel that had strong reviews from Oline Cogdill at the Associated Press, who called it "a compelling look at Chinese politics, culture and religion, delivering the complexities of each with a character-rich story" and Tom Nolan in The Wall Street Journal wrote that "in addition to being a satisfying mystery, Jade Dragon Mountain also powerfully evokes the aesthetics of the time and place it describes." Our mystery reader Anne was a fan. And I was even more intrigued that Pam (who just recently retired) was also a big fan. Plus it was an Anne pick from our spring-summer book club flier. And it had a lot more going for it:
1. According to reviews, the novel also worked as a historical, increasing the market.
2. The protagonist was a librarian, which is always a bonus
3. It's set in China, so I could send my copy to my sister Claudia after I was finished.

Here's the setup. Li Du was a librarian in the Forbidden City, but he was exiled after it turned out that he had befriended some people who turned out to be traitors. He's shown up in Dayan, a remote city by the Tibetan border, where his cousin Talishen is the magistrate, and preparing for a visit from the Emperor. This is a time when the Jesuits were favored by the court, and yes, there are a few Jesuits in attendance, including Brother Pieter, who speaks fluent Chinese (another reason to pay attention to the book--Milwaukee's Marquette is a Jesuit school). There's also someone from the East India Company, who is trying to jumpstart trade, and another younger Jesuit who is studying the plant life. Li Du befriends Hamza, a traveling storyteller, and Mu Gao, the old librarian, as well his cousin's assistant and his main consort, who is running the house, being that he left his wives back in Beijing.

So yes, there's a murder and while Li Du is no detective, he pays a lot of attention to details, and Talishen is worried that the murder will throw off the festivities. If Li Du solves the murder, he'll plead his case to the Emperor to let him come back to Beijing. So this is not an easy task - there are lots of motives floating about and just about everyone involved is hiding something.

So I was talking about the book to another bookseller friend who said that they liked neither mysteries, nor historicals, and weren't too keen regarding books with Chinese settings either. But rule number one for a bookseller is "Give me a book and no matter how good, we can find someone who hates it." And while I thought the book had a bit of a slow setup, by the second half, I was completely into it. The resolution didn't feel like a cheat, and there was actually a double twist. Plus I wound up really liking the friendship between Li Du and Hamza.

I think I can help sell this in paperback, but we'll see how it goes. We already had a great running start in hardcover, having sold 24 copies, which is pretty good for a non-local, non-event, non-bestseller first novel.

Oh, and that's the other thing about why it's fun to recommend mysteries. If your rec turns out to be a hit, many of the readers will wind up continuing to read subsequent books, to a much larger extent than happens with non-series fiction.

So think of it as a cross between Qiu Xiaoling's Death of a Red Heroine and the historical novels of Lisa See or Gail Tsukiyama (though most folks know her Japanese novels, she also writes about novels set in China). Meanwhile, Elsa Hart's second novel featuring Li Du, The White Mirror, comes out September 6. We'll see what Anne says about it.

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