Part II of three on Barry Hughart:
The Story of the Stone (1988), Barry Hughart, 249 pp.
Somehow, Master Li and Number Ten Ox seem to find themselves at the center of the most despicable doings. This time around, it’s a rampaging Prince who’s been dead for 3000 years. The Prince is the prime suspect in a murder and the theft of a manuscript, as well as the growing areas of dead land in an otherwise beautiful and fertile valley.
And then there’s the lure of the Prince’s missing fortune, a treasure buried somewhere in the valley.
Number Ten Ox carries Master Li through caves, over cliffs, and even to Hell in search of the solution, with only Master Li’s phenomenal memory and respect for the deities (and Taoism) as their guide.
About Hughart, there are only bits and pieces, here and there. Childhood in Illinois, private school in Massachusetts, a stint in a psychiatric ward before heading off to college at Columbia, followed by service in Korea, a brief return to NYC, and then finally settling in Arizona. While in Korea, he fell in love with all things China, which slowly grew into his Master Li and Number Ten Ox series. He had planned a total of five books, but stopped after the third, when he felt
I’d taken it as far as I could. Oh, I could come up with more ingenious plots and interesting characters and so on, but the Ox/Master Li format had become just that, a format, and no matter how well I wrote I’d just be repeating myself.
Imagine if Agatha Christie had felt this way, after her third Poirot or Marple mystery. Masterpiece Mystery would have been short dozens of story options. (You can read Hughart’s statement in the jacket flap copy for the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox.)