Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Chinese Alchemist - Lyn Hamilton

The Chinese Alchemist
An Archaeological Mystery
Lyn Hamilton
Berkley Prime Crime


Lara McClintoch, an antiques dealer based in Toronto, has traveled the world, but her latest adventure starts at home. A good friend of hers, Dorothy Matthews (born Dorothy Zhang, in China) was, until recently, the highly respected curator of the Asian collection at the Cottingham Museum. Dorothy shows Lara a beautiful silver box from the T’ang Dynasty. Carved with nature scenes on the outside, the inside contains what looks like part of a recipe. Dorothy explains that the box, which from sometime around 900 A.D., was probably used by an alchemist, and may be part of the legendary potion for immortality.

This box is only one of a set of nesting boxes. Dorothy’s desire is to reunite the boxes and then donate them to a Chinese museum. Since Dorothy suffers from arthritis, Lara attends an auction in New York, intending to buy one of the companion boxes. Burton Haldimand, the new Cottingham curator and world-class hypochondriac, is also at the auction, trying to win the box. But during the auction, the anonymous seller suddenly withdraws the box. Disappointed, Lara and Burton head home.

Only days later, Dorothy is dead. In her will, she requests that Lara continue to try to reunite the boxes. As it happens, the box is coming up for auction again in Beijing. Both Lara and Burton arrive at the auction preview, only to watch, stunned, as the box is literally stolen out from under them. This can’t be a coincidence. Lara is ready to fly home to Toronto, but feels guilty about leaving Dorothy’s last wish unfulfilled. Burton stays on, obviously hoping to get his hands on the box for his museum. It’s obvious that there’s someone else who desperately wants the boxes, either for their intrinsic value or, perhaps, for the secret formula contained in them.

Readers who enjoy mysteries based on archaeological finds or antiquities know that a new Lyn Hamilton novel is cause for celebration. Much of this novel reads like a gorgeous travel guide to Beijing, the Forbidden City, and many other locations in China. There’s a lot of background and history woven into the story that makes it come alive. I especially enjoyed following the introductory sections to each chapter; an ancient history, written by an old man who once served at the Imperial Palace. These segments are beautiful. The voice and cadence are perfect, and it’s wonderful watching the narratives of past and present dovetail. While the mystery is engaging enough on its own, I have to admit that I love this series most for the history, travel, and antiquities. And Ms. Hamilton never lets me down.

Rating: 8
April 2007
ISBN# 978-0-425-21395-7 (hardcover)


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