Category Archives: 18th Century China

The Book Whisperer Reviews the Second Li Du Mystery

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In a recent post, I wrote about Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart. In Jade Dragon Mountain, Hart introduces Li Du, an exiled librarian in 18th century China, who determines the murderer in a remote province just when the Emperor is arriving on a long-planned visit. In fact, Li Du foils plans to harm the Emperor himself, thus receiving pardon from his exile. Readers of Hart’s first book know to expect more from Li Du and The White Mirror does not disappoint. Hart also reintroduces Hamza, the storyteller, who helps Li Du in solving the murder(s).

Still, despite the pardon, Li Du is not ready to return to the Celestial City, so he travels with a group of traders in a caravan through the Tibetan mountains. Upon arrival at Lord Doso’s estate, the caravan encounters a dead monk sitting on a bridge, apparently deceased from a self-inflicted knife wound. However, to add to the horror, above the knife, the monk’s clothes are torn; on the center of his chest, “vivid pigments, beaded with frozen rain, were smeared into the shape of a white circle framed in gold and blue.” The white circle represents a mirror; questions will arise whether the mirror is a reflection or an allusion.

Soon, Li Du and her companions discover the dead monk is Dhamo, a painter, who lives in the temple in the mountains above the estate. Although the murderer has taken great pains to make the death look like suicide, Li Du quickly surmises the death is by murder, not suicide. He quietly goes about finding the clues to prove the murder and expose the murderer, but not before another murder occurs and other mysterious threats befall various members of the household and its guests. To compound the mystery, Li Du has difficulty determining what Dhamo was thinking in the days before his death.

The mirror becomes a symbol as the Chhoshe explains: “the mirror is a symbol of the enlightened mind…. It sees objects as they are, and it reflects them as they are. It does not alter or distort what passes before it, as we alter and distort what passes before our eyes.”

Lumo, an elderly female hermit who lives on the edge of the estate, tells Li Du, “No one knew [Dhamo] well. Dhamo sustained himself on the company of his own mind.” Besides Lumo, Li Du must consider a number of other suspects who might have murdered Dhamo. Doso’s household is large. His wife Kamala is the primary cook and keeps a close eye on her young children. Pema, Doso’s adopted son, will inherit the estate since the oldest son Tashi has been anointed as the Chhoshe or tulku, “a custodian of a specific lineage of teachings in Tibetan Buddhism who is given empowerment and trained from a young age by students of his predecessor.” Tashi has returned to the monastery and is uncertain of his plans.

Other members of the household include Yeshe, crippled by an attack by thieves, and befriended by Doso who allows Yeshe to remain on the estate. Yeshe is grateful for the patronage and would give his life to protect Kamala and the children.

Khampa is the leader of the caravan; Li Du has traveled with the caravan from Dayan. Khampa plans to trade tea and other commodities once the caravan gets through the mountains. Already at the estate, Paolo Campo is a priest who hopes to find evidence of past Christians in the area. He becomes convinced the devil is afoot when Dhamo is discovered. Andruk is an interpreter who accompanies Campo. Another mysterious guest is Sera-tsering who gets under Hamza’s skin by undercutting his stories with her own or by giving the ending of one of his stories. Sonam is another visitor, but he is well-known at the estate since Pema is his nephew. A final guest is Rinzen who purpose is also unknown until Li Du reveals all at the end of the story.

Li Du painstakingly uncovers one truth after another and one secret after another. He must depend upon his powers of observation and his innate intelligence in order to put the clues together. At first, everyone is a suspect until Li Du can meticulously sort through everyone’s whereabouts at the time of the murders and also sort out motives. Sonam is the next victim and he dies in a cave where Pema goes to paint beautiful pictures on the walls of the cave, a secret place known only to him and Tashi from their boyhood. Pema does show the cave to his uncle, but Pema is not there when Sonam dies.

Hart weaves into the story politics of 18th century China and Tibet along with information about the true Dali Lama and the false one.

Throughout The White Mirror, Li Du reminisces about his days in the Celestial City and his mentor Shu who was put to death for conspiring against the Emperor. Li Du’s exile results from his association with Shu. Li Du remembers a conversation with Shu: “If all the poets are arrested except those who write on topics that please the Emperor, then our empire’s poetry will be lifeless. No one who is afraid to put the right word into place can write good poetry.” Those lines are meaningful today, not just about writing poetry, but about writing the truth.

Dhamo is a painter who paints on silk for monasteries across the country. Do those paintings have something to do with his death? Is it the place where the painting is going that is important, the person who commissioned it, or the subject matter itself? Li Du must unravel all the clues to determine the truth. The paintings, called thangka, are painted on cotton or silk and depict a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala.

As Li Du unravels the clues, he discovers deception in a variety of people, but is that deception enough to have caused the murder of two men? Khampa has agreed to meet Sonam at the estate in order to purchase fraudulent tax documents that will allow him to keep the money he makes on selling his tea bricks once he gets through the mountain pass. Is that a reason for murder? If so, why would it involve the monk Dhamo? Add to the intrigue the unrest between China and Tibet and the seeking of the true Dali Lama.

Once Li Du has figured out who has committed the murders, he confides in Hamza, most of what he knows. Li Du knows he can trust Hamza and also that discussing the clues with Hamza helps Li Du make the connections clear. Like Hercule Poirot, Li Du gathers all the members of the household and the guests in the kitchen and explains what he has put together from the clues he has discovered.

Li Du keeps readers engaged in the story. The intrigue builds as more people become suspects until Li Du connects the dots and exposes the murderer. The White Mirror is an excellent sequel to Jade Dragon Mountain, and I hope Li Du will have further adventures soon.