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From St. Louis To Beijing: Author Elsa Hart Discusses Li Du Mysteries, Writing Process, What's Next

"City of Ink," set in early 18th-century Beijing, is Elsa Hart's third novel. She's currently at work on her fourth.
Minotaur Books & St. Louis Public Radio

For local author Elsa Hart, a comparison of her intricate plots to those of longtime mystery writer John le Carré came as a welcome compliment during a conversation Monday with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.

“When I was starting to write ‘Jade Dragon Mountain’ and it was my first time writing fiction, I would read scenes from [le Carre’s] ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,’” Hart said. “And I did something that I think I heard Ray Bradbury did as well – where I would just retype the scenes to try to get a sense of the rhythm … I really enjoy the way John le Carré is able to go into characters’ heads and then move out of them very, very fluidly, and I was trying to learn how he did that.”

She’s doing a lot of that with her own characters these days – particularly when it comes to Li Du, the exiled-librarian-turned-detective at the center of her first three novels: “Jade Dragon Mountain,” “The White Mirror” and “City of Ink,” which was released in August 2018.

Without giving too much away for would-be readers, Hart offered a brief overview of the trilogy and where things stand for this early 18th-century character who has become quite the fictional companion.

“By the end of ‘Jade Dragon Mountain’ he’s no longer in exile, but for reasons of his own he’s not yet ready to go home,” Hart said of Li Du. “But by the end of ‘The White Mirror’ the situation has changed, and he has in his mind no choice but to return to Beijing … his home that he’s avoided for many years at this point.

“So he comes to Beijing, and ‘City of Ink,’ in order to investigate the death of his mentor, who was supposedly executed for being a traitor … now Li Du has new information. But of course his investigation of this crime of the past is interrupted by murder in the present.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch deemed “City of Ink” Hart’s best novel yet, and the editors of Publishers Weekly selected it as one of their “Best Books” of 2018.

While modern-day St. Louis is far removed from the settings of Hart’s novels so far, she’s found excellent resources at the St. Louis Public Library as well as libraries at the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Art Museum.

A large architecturally focused volume at the art museum, titled “Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400-1900,” proved particularly worthwhile to pore over as “City of Ink” came to fruition, she said.

“I was also very lucky to be able to go to Beijing,” Hart added, “and do some research there just walking the streets and trying to get to know [and] create in my mind the setting where this book was going to take place.”

Now at work on her fourth mystery – which she noted will move away from Li Du as the protagonist, despite her fondness for him – Hart called herself a “very strict outliner” when it comes to her writing process.

“I need to have the skeleton of the story down before I make any attempt at writing a beautiful sentence,” she said. “And I sort of assumed that was the case for all writers of mysteries. But I’ve since spoken to many, including Donna Leon, who writes the inspector Brunetti mysteries set in Venice, and she can start a mystery not even quite knowing whodunit, and figure it out as she goes.

“And my response was, ‘You must be amazing at chess,’ because I really need to have everything figured out.”

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 Alex HeuerEvie 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.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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