When Elsa Hart moved to St. Louis and set out to earn a law degree from Washington University, becoming a novelist wasn’t at the top of her agenda. But then neither did Li Du, the protagonist of her since-published historical mysteries, expect to morph into a detective.
Trained as an imperial librarian in early 18th-century China, the fictional character winds up solving crimes in the midst of an ancient eclipse of the sun and other unexpectedly fraught adventures. Li Du is the central character in both Hart’s debut, “Jade Dragon Mountain” (2015), and its sequel, “The White Mirror” (2016), and still more surprises await him and his associates.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with Hart about the inspiration for her books thus far, the craft of mystery writing and what’s next for her as an author.
Hart noted that the setting and characters of her first novel took shape over the course of about three years – a period that at times included extensive travel in China while her husband was conducting botanical research in the region. Stationed high in the mountains at times, she struggled to sleep at night because of the altitude and spent many a wakeful hour listening to BBC radio adaptations of classic Agatha Christie mysteries.
“I had these stories kind of repeating in my mind, and I was hiking around these mountains looking at these old trade routes between China and Tibet that still kind of contour these mountains, these paths,” Hart said. “And I started wondering whether I could set a mystery on these trade routes in the mountains modeled on the same formula as ‘Murder on the Orient Express,’ and so that’s where the idea started. And that’s not really what I ended up doing, but that was where it began.”
She also did a lot of historical research at Olin Library at Wash U as she finished up her law degree while also bringing Li Du’s story to life. And the legal education itself, she added, has come in handy – though in a far different capacity than the courtroom context she initially anticipated.
“So much of what you learn in law school is how to take this infinite number of facts that are present in any given situation and select the ones that are relevant and turn them into a narrative,” Hart explained. “And that is certainly applicable to writing fiction as well, and so I learned that discipline.”
Widely acclaimed mystery writer Louise Penny recently named “Jade Dragon Mountain” among her own top mystery reads.
Hart’s third novel, “City of Ink,” is set for release in August from Minotaur Books. Her fourth book is starting to take shape now and will transport readers to a fictional setting in London.
What: An Evening with Elsa Hart
When: 7 p.m. Monday, April 23, 2018
Where: University City Public Library (6701 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis MO 63130)
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.