The Skull Mantra, by Eliot Pattison

5519343After finishing up Blue Poppies, I was still in the mood to read about Tibet so I re-read Eliot Pattison’s The Skull Mantra*. This book was so packed with details that, as I read it, I could almost feel the wind and the cold and the hunger that its main character, Shan Tao Yun, felt. I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes mysteries set in exotic places.

Unlike most mystery heroes, Shan is not a cop. He used to be, but now he is serving an indefinite sentence in a gulag in Tibet for the crime of ticking off the wrong Party official. Shan has been in the gulag for about three years before this story begins, and he has learned the ins-and-outs of his new life. Most of his fellow prisoners are Buddhist monks who are (or were just accused) of carrying on a passive protest against the Chinese government. One of the major themes of this series of books is China’s systematic attempts to wipe out Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetans’ traditional ways of life. Monk are required to get licenses to practice. Traditional modes of trade and farming are replaced with Chinese Communist collectives. Dissidents are imprisoned or worse. The stories of the Tibetans–repeated by Pattison’s characters–are just heartbreaking.

One morning, a headless body is discovered in a ravine near the work site of Shan’s band of prisoners. Rather than have the local prosecutor investigate (the prosecutor is missing), the governor of Lhadung county calls Shan in. He tells Shan that he needs to investigate this death. After some deal making and some arm twisting, Shan takes on the case. From there, clues and motives and potential suspects all pop on to the scene. Pattison’s construction of the mystery is terrific. He feeds you information but unless you’re Sherlock Holmes, you don’t figure out who done it until the end. Instead, you can feel a huge conspiracy taking shape but the details are just out of your grasp.

Unlike western mysteries, Shan also has to make the case make sense in a “Socialist” context. Crimes like murder are not just crimes against persons. They are crimes against the State. Trials are not just meant to punish the guilty, but also to serve as object lessons for the People. (I always wondered who the People were, when it seems like the most negatively impacted population are the alleged proletariat.)

There are at least four more books featuring Shan Tao Yun after this one, and I am very much looking forward to reading more about him and his Tibet. Not only did I get an intricate and intriguing mystery, but I also got a glimpse into a world that I would never have otherwise learned about. I can’t imagine the amount of research that Pattison needed to do in order to get all the facts and the details right. So few books that I read have the level of detail that makes you feel like you’re standing right next to the main character that this one did. I really, really enjoyed this book.


*I actually finished reading this over a week ago but, for some reason, WordPress and my Ubuntu distro do not get along all the time.


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