Friday, August 7, 2020

The Perils of Collecting

Although I was sad to see Elsa Hart moving away from her wonderful series of mystery novels set in early Qing China, it’s always fun to explore a new fictional arena in the hands of such a gifted storyteller. In my latest interview with her for the New Books Network, she discusses why she moved her literary focus west (and a few years earlier), to Queen Anne’s London in 1703.

In fact, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is, in a sense, a prequel to Jade Dragon Mountain and its sequels. Dedicated readers of the earlier (and, I hope, ongoing) series will enjoy a cameo appearance by one of the characters; others will appreciate the new book on its own terms.

In short, this is a book about collectors—not the everyday kind who accumulate more owl statues than most people ever imagine needing or aim for a complete set of 1893 coins or stamps. Collectors like Barnaby Mayne grab everything they can find: fossils and ferns, snake skins and pickled body parts, skulls and statuettes. Mayne’s house is less a carefully curated museum than a madhouse of objects stored in and on every available surface and coveted by his fellow collectors all over London.

So when he shows up dead one day, the immediate question becomes what to do with all this stuff. His widow can’t wait to sell it to the highest bidder; solving the crime takes a back seat, in her view. (One imagines Sir Barnaby might not have been the kind of spouse one would miss. On the page he is unremittingly self-centered.) Only Lady Cecily Kay, an amateur botanist mining the collector’s plants for specimens that match those she’s brought back to England, can’t resist the intellectual puzzle of who, exactly, murdered Sir Barnaby and why.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Lady Cecily Kay has just returned to England when she encounters Sir Barnaby Mayne. It’s 1703, Queen Anne is on the throne, and London’s coffee houses are buzzing with discussions of everything from science and philosophy to monsters and magic. Of course, Cecily has no plans to join the ongoing conversations; coffee houses bar the door to female visitors, however intelligent and learned. But she has secured something better: an entrée to the house of the city’s most influential collector, where she can compare her list of previously unknown plants to his rooms filled with specimens and, with luck, identify them.

On Cecily’s first day in the Mayne house, however, Sir Barnaby is stabbed to death. His meek curator confesses to the crime, and even the victim’s widow seems willing to ignore any discrepancies in the evidence. With assistance from Meacan Barlow, an illustrator also living in Sir Barnaby’s house, Cecily sets out to tie up the loose ends on a murder that far too many people would prefer to remain unsolved. Her quest leads her into the shadowy world of London’s collectors, who will stop at nothing to cut out the competition and have no qualms about silencing a pair of nosy women who are coming too close to the truth.

Elsa Hart, the author of the famed Li Du novels, here brings her talent for spinning a great yarn and crafting a compelling mystery to a new place, which—as you will learn in the interview—is in fact her original literary destination, attained at last.

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