An 18th-century sleuth risks his own safety in his pursuit of justice and the truth.
China, 1711. Brilliant former librarian Li Du toils as a clerk in relative obscurity in the North Borough Office in a small designated area of Beijing’s Outer City, after having been exiled then pardoned by the emperor. Chief Inspector Sun, knowing of Li Du’s reputation as a sleuth, enlists his help in a sensitive case. Two murder victims have been found at the Black Tile Factory: Pan Yongfa, a man employed by the Ministry of Rites, and Madame Hong, the factory owner’s wife. Though even Hong suspects adultery, discretion prevents this possibility from being openly discussed. Hong professes innocence of the violent crime, but neither Sun nor his boss, Magistrate Yin, believes him. While Sun attends to other official business, Li Du is tasked with questioning factory employees, including plant manager Hu and the nervous worker who discovered the body. A surprise visitor to the factory that day was Father Louis Aveneau, a recent arrival from France. His explanations to Li Du seem less than forthright, but Aveneau’s close relationship with Li Du’s childhood mentor, Father Calmette, complicates the issue. Despite his ambivalence, Li Du’s patient, incisive probing unearths layers of corruption and an array of suspects.
Highly atmospheric and elegantly appointed, this mystery from Hart (The White Mirror, 2016, etc.) shines brightest in her detective’s sublime cat-and-mouse interrogations of the gallery of witnesses and suspects. The introverted, intellectual sleuth is a perfect match for most any armchair detective.