The White Mirror, by Elsa Hart

The White Mirror follows inadvertent investigator Li Du into the mountains after he has solved the mystery behind the murder of a Jesuit priest in Jade Dragon Mountain (click here for a brief endorsement). En route to Lhasa, the former imperial librarian finds himself snowed in amongst a company of travelers at a mountain valley inn. Click here for the complete introduction to the ensuing mystery and its milieu available on the author’s web site.

Hart’s Li Du novels present a sometimes disconcerting mix of exoticism and familiarity. The author imbues her characters and their surroundings with a sense of authenticity that makes us feel we could be watching at a wormhole into the distant world of 18th-century Qing China. But her use of standard mystery tropes and her skillful deployment of setting imparts the cozy ambience of a large, open hearth, beside which we sip a cup of puerh tea while a storyteller spins tales within and a blizzard rages without.

Though I am unqualified to evaluate Hart’s accuracy, she delivers her depictions with the confidence of one who knows of what she writes. And her cosmopolitan background (click here for Hart’s bio) suggests sufficient cross-cultural experience to avoid superficial stereotypes.

Crossing boundaries in and through literature–as in life–is rife with risk. Differences in culture, speech patterns, worldview, and ideological categories are real. A faithful depiction of a setting and its people should reflect this. Failure to do so perpetuates the reader’s predisposition to think that all people everywhere share the reader’s values and perspective. On the other hand, overstatement of these differences runs the risk of erecting barriers that readers find difficult to surmount, not mention reducing the subject matter to a caricature.

Literary translators face a similar dilemma when determining how much to foreignize or domesticate their translations. How much of the flavor of the original can one safely import? Too much and one risks losing readers to the latest NY Times bestseller. Too little and they may think the original author hails from Kansas rather than Nairobi.

In our opinion, Hart has negotiated this tricky terrain with skill. Her characters reflect issues and values unique to their setting, opening a window on a different time and place. But the emotions with which they respond to such eventualities as struggle and loss are highly human and relatable.

Hart’s foreignization in the Li Du novels did present a difficulty I had not anticipated. At times I found it difficult to discern whether a character’s behavior was genuinely awkward and thus made him or her a suspect. Or was the awkwardness merely superficial, a misunderstanding on my part, attributable to differences in culture and mores?

Armchair sleuths may consider this added wrinkle a blessing or a bane, depending on how they like their mysteries. But readers seeking an immersive experience gain the opportunity to taste the inevitable perplexity of travelers stepping into a new culture. My mystification also hints at how minorities can come under unjust suspicion if their diction and posture contrast with those of the majority culture.

Click here for a review of Hart’s latest mystery, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne. For the record, though I found the personalities in Barnaby Mayne easier to “read,” despite their 300-year removal in time, I still did not succeed in identifying the killer before the final unmasking. Consider that a pro or a con, depending on whether you like to track down the murderer in advance of the literary sleuth.

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