Hart’s 18th-century sleuth, Li Du, must solve a monk’s murder in The White Mirror.
What inspired the series, which started with Jade Dragon Mountain?
I was living in China because my husband, a biologist, was studying high alpine plants on the southernmost glaciated peak in the greater Himalayan region, at an altitude nearly twice as high as Denver. I had some trouble sleeping, so at night I listened to adaptations of Agatha Christie mysteries. While hiking, I could see trails contouring the mountain, remnants of the old trade route. With mysteries on my mind, I wondered if it would be possible to tailor a Murder on the Orient Express scenario to a mule caravan. Would a caravan, isolated amid vast mountain peaks, be as contained a setting as a train stuck in a snowdrift? That wasn’t the story I ended up writing, but the idea for the plot began there. A visit to the Ancient Astronomical Observatory in Beijing inspired me to research the Jesuits who oversaw its construction, which led me to the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
What intrigued you about the period?
The confluence of forces. The Kangxi emperor of China was trying to protect his fledgling dynasty and prove his people, the Manchu, capable of carrying on the cultural credibility of China’s former rulers. He was assisted in this by Jesuits, whose understanding of technological innovations, particularly in the realm of astronomy, secured them a place in the imperial court even as their rivals in China and within the Catholic church plotted their downfall. China’s neighbor, Tibet, had been unified by a powerful Dalai Lama, and the rapidly expanding English East India Company had turned its attention to China’s ports.
What are the biggest misconceptions about 18th-century China?
That it was culturally and ethnically homogenous. Throughout its history, China’s borders have encompassed a wide diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and languages. I set The White Mirror in the mountains of southwest China, a place where, as the saying goes, “Every valley has its own language and every lama his own doctrine.”
Are there aspects of that time and place that you think resonate today?
The role of spectacle in nation-building is as relevant today as it was then. In the present, as in the past, some are moved by the pageantry, while others are skeptical. Americans are inundated with stories, some of which are embedded in advertisements, political campaigns, and social media. The plots of both novels turn on the understanding that there is a storyteller behind every story, whether it’s an emperor controlling the narrative of an empire, an author constructing a novel, or a murderer justifying a crime.