One of 2018’s Best Mysteries by Publisher’s Weekly
One of the Best Audiobooks to Listen to in October by The Washington Post
“This entry solidifies her status as a top-notch historical mystery author.” – Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
“Richly detailed novel of life and crime in 18th century China.” –The Wall Street Journal
Following the enthralling 18th century Chinese mysteries Jade Dragon Mountain and White Mirror, comes the next Li Du adventure in City of Ink.
Li Du was prepared to travel anywhere in the world except for one place: home. But to unravel the mystery that surrounds his mentor’s execution, that’s exactly where he must go.
Plunged into the painful memories and teeming streets of Beijing, Li Du obtains a humble clerkship that offers anonymity and access to the records he needs. He is beginning to make progress when his search for answers buried in the past is interrupted by murder in the present.
The wife of a local factory owner is found dead, along with a man who appears to have been her lover, and the most likely suspect is the husband. But what Li Du’s superiors at the North Borough Office are willing to accept as a crime of passion strikes Li Du as something more calculated. As past and present intertwine, Li Du’s investigations reveal that many of Beijing’s residents foreign and Chinese, artisan and official, scholar and soldier have secrets they would kill to protect.
When the threats begin, Li Du must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice to discover the truth in a city bent on concealing it, a city where the stroke of a brush on paper can alter the past, change the future, prolong a life, or end one.
About the Author
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. City of Ink is her third novel.
Read an Excerpt
"Audacity is what distinguishes the great scholars from the merely successful ones. Twenty-two years ago, when the examiners asked me to arrange the chapters of The Great Learning into their most proper order, I will confess, I had no answer. So what did I do? I attacked the authenticity of the entire tome. Audacity, you see. Now I am the one who marks the essays."
The speaker was Bai Chengde, eminent scholar and frequenter of elite social gatherings. It was a warm afternoon in autumn, and he was a guest at a private literary party. Around him, intellectuals, artists, and officials mingled in walled courtyard gardens shaded by bamboo, elm, and cypress trees.
"My son is taking the examinations." With his rustic complexion and cotton robes, Hu Gongshan was out of place amid the affluent literati of Beijing. He had nodded respectfully for the duration of Bai's monologue, which had spanned three cups of wine and the whole of Bai's academic and professional accomplishments. "I am a factory manager. I make tiles, sir. I have done what I can, but my boy surpassed me in learning years ago. If you could offer any advice, that is, coming from such an esteemed scholar, it would be of great value." The words tumbled awkwardly into silence.
Bai was looking over Hu's shoulder in an unconcealed effort to catch the eye of someone more distinguished. "Advice? My advice is to avoid such obvious attempts to flatter examiners a week before the examinations begin. Corruption has no place in our city's most illustrious institution."
Hu looked stricken. "It — it was not my intention to flatter you," he stammered. "The examinations identify the best men in the empire, those most qualified to govern. You are one of those men. I know you would never allow yourself to be manipulated by flattery."
The reply earned a cool nod of approval from the scholar. "I suppose this is your son?"
A young man had emerged from a nearby bamboo grove. "Yes," said Hu, his face alight with fatherly pride. "This is Erchen."
With a look of intense mortification, the youth bowed to Bai, and placed a hand on the other man's arm. "Father," he gasped. "He is an examiner. We cannot speak to him about the examinations." He turned a pale, exhausted face to Bai and held up a slim, somewhat battered volume with a creased paper cover. "Of course, we would be honored to hear your opinion of the text our host assigned for this afternoon's discussion."
Bai made a show of consulting his own volume, which bore the same title, but was elegantly bound in pristine white silk. "I wish I could enjoy books with no literary merit," he said with a rueful sigh. "Alas, such diversions are denied me. I am too accustomed to a higher standard. And, since your father asked me to give you advice, I will recommend that, with the examinations so near, you devote your energies to more elevated material."
Without acknowledging them further, Bai glided away to join a group of gentlemen dressed, as he was, in robes of pale gray and blue. These were colors of affected humility, but the silk was of the finest quality and fell to the season's most fashionable length. Amid the rustle and creak of branches swaying in the blustery weather, the scholars were alternating contentedly between criticizing the book they had been assigned to read and debating the efficacy of a mnemonic device popular among this year's examination candidates.
In an adjacent courtyard, a circle of spectators surrounded two men sitting opposite each other at a chessboard. One of them reached out his hand and, with fingers swollen around rings, picked up the cannon piece. The spectators pointed, shook their heads, and murmured suggestions.
"Don't distract me," growled the man. The words ran into each other. His hand, still holding the cannon, traveled over the board until, with abrupt decision, he slapped the piece down. Then he picked up a cup of wine, drank deeply, and returned it to its place beside a porcelain bottle at the corner of the table. He swayed, leaned back, and rubbed his stomach absently, exploring the texture of silk rounded by the soft hemisphere of a large belly.
His opponent might have been the same age, but was such a picture of health and vigor that he appeared much younger. From beneath brows smooth and dark as brushstrokes, his eyes assessed the board with more amusement than concentration. He slid his remaining knight into position, revealing a trap from which there was no escape. The game was over.
The audience relaxed, but the defeated player sprang suddenly to his feet. As he rose, he placed his fingertips beneath the edge of the table and lifted, flipping it into the air. The cup and bottle smashed to the ground. The pieces scattered and spun across the cobbled courtyard. There was a horrified silence.
The victor, who had watched the table's progress through the air without leaving his seat, stood up slowly and smiled. It was an attractive smile, languid and mobile, all the more beguiling for its hint of insincerity.
"Perhaps you did not intend your final move," he said. "Would you like to play it again? I recall the arrangement of the pieces." He surveyed the pieces — painted disks — that littered the garden. His broad smile thinned to one of subtle mockery.
The man who had lost didn't appear to be listening. He ignored the question and made his way on unsteady feet toward three women whose company had been purchased for the party. They were laughing and shaking spattered wine from their skirts. Their dangling earrings sparkled. Dainty red shoes peeked out from beneath silk hems.
From the doorway of a room bordering the courtyard, two men observed the action. "Hong is eight-tenths drunk," said one, a calligrapher known for his vast collection of bronze artifacts.
His companion was an elderly scholar who had made a name for himself with a series of essays on using dream analysis to predict examination results. "Hong is not a bad chess player even when he drinks," he said. "But I've never seen anyone beat Pan." He sighed and raised his own cup to his lips. "An examination candidate would make a bargain with a demon to acquire a mind like his."
The spectacle was over, and they turned their attention back to the room, which was dedicated to a collection of antiquities. The calligrapher bent over in front of a low table to admire a vase glazed a fathomless blue, with a white dragon wrapped around its widest section. "For a man without a degree, I will admit that Hong has good taste."
"His wife is the one with the taste," replied the scholar. "Madam Hong is a connoisseur of beauty. In addition, I have heard, to being beautiful herself." He chuckled. "I was told she read The Bitter Plum and declared it insufficiently intellectual for our gathering."
The calligrapher was examining a bronze vessel, holding it by handles as thin as twine. "She was right. A pity Hong does not allow her to curate his bookshelves, in addition to his antiques. I have never been to a party with less stimulating discussion, our own conversation excepted, of course."
After draining his cup, the scholar craned his neck to see if any of the delicacies remained on the tables outside.
"Fortunately," he said, "this party will end early. It is about to rain."
The scholar's predictive powers were borne out. Within the hour, black clouds advanced upon the city. Gusting winds gained strength. Slim trees shuddered in their pots, and golden-yellow leaves fluttered to the ground, where raindrops pinned them down. It was not yet evening, but the storm brought an illusion of night. Through the darkness, jagged bolts of lightning scarred the inky sky, and thunder mimicked the evening drums. Guests sent for covered sedan chairs to convey them home, while servants rushed to collect silk cushions from the courtyards.
In one of the mansion's secluded gardens, three men stood in a pavilion, obscured by swaying branches and a veil of rain that poured down the tile roof and formed agitated puddles at the edges of the marble floor. A sudden flash of blue light tore the darkness apart. There was a crash, as if all the walls of the city had shattered at once.
"It's a warning," one hissed. "We're going to be found out. I thought I saw someone there, hidden." He pointed toward a dense thicket of bamboo.
"We won't be found out."
"But aren't you listening? This storm means disaster, destruction. We never should have —"
"Leave the study of omens to scholars and priests." The third man, who had been standing at the edge of the pavilion with his back to the other two, turned around and bestowed on them a languid smile. "Apply your mind to more practical considerations. There are advantages to darkness and fire."CHAPTER 2
Two days after Hong's party, Wei Yonghen hurried through the streets of the Outer City. He was late. Of the thirteen doors in Beijing's outer wall, only twelve had opened that morning. By chance, he had chosen to enter through the one that was closed. Crammed in the middle of an impatient crowd, he had waited over an hour before the soldiers in charge of the towering red door announced that it was to be renovated and repainted, and would remain closed all day.
"It's because of Prince Yinzao's return," a sweating rug seller close to Wei had murmured. "He will enter the city through this gate."
A merchant standing nearby had sighed. "I should have known. My family has been reminding me of it for months. They made me promise to bring them to the welcome parade."
Without waiting to hear any more discussion, Wei had extricated himself from the crowd and hurried south to the next gate. As soon as he was inside the city, he had started to run, splashing through puddles and skidding across the ubiquitous mud slicks of Beijing's marshy southern boroughs. His thoughts were full of concern that he would not be able to secure employment and would have no money to bring home. His wife would sigh. The friends with whom he played cards in the village square would be embarrassed for him. Perhaps his bad luck would continue, and when his daughter was old enough to marry, she would have no dowry.
He was out of breath when he entered the Black Tile Factory. To his relief, he recognized the man who stood near the center of the courtyard issuing commands to laborers powdered with clay dust and streaked with coal. Wei smiled and bowed, willing Hu Gongshan to remember that they had drunk wine together, before Hu had been promoted to manager.
"We have enough men already," said Hu, when Wei reached him. "We can't take any more." His tone, though not unkind, was firm.
Wei tried to appear confident, even as his hopes faltered. "But I heard that you needed extra workers this week."
"We did, but now we have enough."
"If I come back tomorrow —"
"These men are all hired for the next ten days. I'd give you work if I could, but I can't. I'm not the owner."
"I would have arrived earlier," said Wei. "Xibian Gate is closed today. Please. I walked all night."
"Look." Hu gestured at the teeming courtyard. There were almost a hundred workers within the high stone walls. Most were clustered around the kilns, shoveling coal, stoking flames, or unloading finished tiles that clinked against each other like bells as they were stacked onto carts. The rest were dispersed across the flat courtyard, preparing the clay, cutting it to tiles of standard size and shape, and arranging them in rows to dry. "We're full," Hu said. "I can't pay you to stand around."
Wei thought of the previous evening, when he had watched his wife pack dumplings for him to eat on his journey. He pictured returning home with coins and placing them, one by one, into her hand. "You and I go back, don't we?" he said to Hu. "Isn't there space for one more?"
He waited, but Hu's attention had shifted to the factory entrance. Wei turned, following the direction of his look. A man stood at the open door. He wore black robes with dusty hems. His beard was brown and gray like a sparrow's wing, and his face, it seemed to Wei, was dominated by an enormous nose. Wei had only seen foreigners of this type a few times in his life, and then only at festivals near the palace walls.
The stranger scanned the courtyard until his eyes fell on Hu. He approached, and bowed. "I have come to buy —" He pointed to the stacks of tiles at the edge of the courtyard. "— for the roof," he finished. Though he spoke Chinese with a Beijing accent, his pronunciation was unusual, and his words were separated by minute hesitations.
"You want to buy roof tiles?" asked Hu.
"Tiles, yes," said the man. "I did not know the word."
"I apologize," said Hu. "The owner hasn't come in today."
"I see," said the man. "Would it be possible to make arrangements without the owner? There is some urgency —"
Hu's brow creased as he struggled to comprehend the foreigner's odd delivery. Perceiving Hu's distraction, Wei seized his chance. "I'll find a task," he said. "If I'm not doing good work by the time you finish speaking with this visitor, you can send me away."
Relenting, Hu nodded and waved Wei toward the center of the yard. Before Hu could change his mind, Wei slipped quickly into the obscuring smoke and dust. Most of the workers ignored him. Some grunted greetings. He assessed his surroundings and found, to his relief, a slumped mound of clay almost as tall as he was. Before it could be cut into pieces and shaped into tiles, it needed to be compressed, the air beaten from it. As Wei prepared to claim the task, he realized, to his dismay, why the clay had not been receiving any attention. There were no tools. Every mallet, shovel, frame, wire, broom, and blade was in use.
He knew he couldn't remain idle. One of the others would notice and report him to Hu, or Hu himself would notice and send him home. He searched with growing desperation for another occupation, until his eye alighted on a small building in a remote corner of the complex.
Wei had been inside it, years ago, when it had been a workroom. Since then it had been converted to an administrative office, but Wei remembered the jumble of materials and broken tools that had been stored there in the past. If he was lucky, he might find some object in that building that he could use to justify his presence at the factory. Even a piece of wire would be enough.
The administrative office was forbidden to day laborers. But, he reasoned with himself, he only needed to slip inside for a few moments. A quick glance told him that Hu was still talking to the foreigner. If he was quick, Wei could be out of the office, and hard at work, by the time Hu noticed him again. Almost without realizing he had made the decision, Wei began walking toward the building.
There was an unattended kiln not far from it. Wei slipped behind the kiln, which was tall enough to hide him while he assessed the door to the office. It was closed. The windows were also shut tight. His heart was pounding as he placed a hand on the side of the kiln to steady himself. Warmth spread through his trembling fingers. He turned his attention back to the door. There was no sign of movement from within. He dropped his hand and darted to the veranda, expecting to hear someone shout at him. No one did. He climbed the stairs and put an ear to the door. There was no sound from inside, no step, no flutter of paper, no creak of furniture. The building was silent.
As he touched the handle, he hesitated, and withdrew his fingers from the cold brass loop. He wiped his sweating hand on his shirt and reached out again. It was only a minor transgression, he told himself. The worst that could happen was that he would be sent away, and that was going to happen anyway if he didn't find some way to be useful.
With a decisive motion, he pushed the door open. No shout of censure came from within, or from without. He slipped quickly inside, closed the door behind him, and sagged with relief. Shut away from the bright day, he was suddenly blind. Impressions of sunlight swam through the gloom in front of him, translucent circles expanding and contracting across his vision.
He blinked rapidly, willing his eyes to adjust. The shapes around him gained form and solidity. He saw a desk, and a chair, and a cabinet bed in the corner. He watched it materialize, its edges and details emerging from the fractured shadows. Then he saw, unmistakably, the shape of a boot, and the draped and crumpled folds of a robe. Fear assailed him, clutching his shoulders with sharp talons. There was someone on the bed.
Wei remained where he was, pinned by miserable uncertainty. He could feel the pulse and flutter of his heartbeat in his neck. One footstep, one creak of the floor, could wake the sleeper, and then what would happen? He turned his head toward the door that led to the storage room.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "City of Ink"
Copyright © 2018 Elsa Hart.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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