About the Book
Publisher: Soho Crime (November 29, 2007)
Summoned to a remote village from the hidden lamasery where he lives, Shan, formerly an investigator in Beijing, must save a comatose man from execution for two murders in which the victims' hands have been removed. Upon arrival, he discovers that the suspect is not Tibetan but Navajo. The man has come with his niece to seek ancestral ties between their people and the ancient Bon. The recent murders are only part of a chain of deaths. Together with his friends, the monks Gendon and Lokesh, Shan solves the riddle of Dragon Mountain, the place "where the world begins."
The notion that two peoples separated by more than ten thousand miles and easily as many years could share common roots may at first seem but a romantic fancy, but the existing evidence has given pause to more than a few experts. The common elements between the Tibetans and the Navajo-Dine peoples set forth in these pages are, like all the themes in my books, based upon fact. Long before I considered weaving them into one of my mysteries I had been fascinated not just by the physical similarities between Tibetans and the native peoples of the American Southwest but also by the many common cultural and religious aspects appearing in such disparate geographies. Sandpaintings, thunder gods, and religious swastikas are only some of the more readily apparent indicators of possible links. Whether your particular interests lean toward linguistics, medicine, ice age geology, genetics, cosmology, or earwax, you can find fragments of evidence supporting an ancient connection.
While it seems unlikely that such fragments from conventional science will ever combine for unequivocal proof, I side with my ever-intuitive characters in concluding that the most compelling similarities have not so much to do with the artifacts of everyday existence but the overlapping remnants of the spiritual life of the two peoples. Over fifty years ago anthropologist Frank Waters, in his book The Masked Gods, noted the parallels between the death rituals of Tibetans and the Navajo and Pueblo Indians. More recently anthropologist Peter Gold expanded this premise in his fascinating book Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom, which masterfully probes parallels in the inner teachings of both peoples. As the debate over both ethereal and empirical evidence continues, the Tibetans and Southwestern Indians have dealt something of a preemptive strike: with the expansion of the modernday Tibetan diaspora, the traditional homeland of those Indians is becoming a significant relocation site for dispossessed Tibetan families.
Ultimately the real reward of the riddles about Tibetans and the peoples of the American Southwest may lie in the telling, not in the answering. The most important lessons emerging from this exercise perhaps are not about whom they may be but whom the rest of us are. Years ago I hung over my desk Carl Jung's epitaph for contemporary man. Modern humanity, Jung wrote, "has sold its soul for a mass of disconnected facts." If we want to glimpse the way things might have been before we struck this hollow bargain we have but to look to the traditional Tibetans and Navajo, who, as they have for centuries, live lives of deep purpose, closely connected to the primal world.
However elusive may be the proof of prehistoric links, these people without question share a modern reality: they have both been under siege by outside political and economic forces. The Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi tribes have long struggled with mineral exploitation on their sacred lands. The degree of environmental damage inflicted by mining on the Tibetan lands is of epoch proportions. Entire mountains have been destroyed by mining, including a number that were considered sacred by the Tibetans, leading to destruction of adjoining watersheds and their accompanying ecosystems. While the largest of these projects have been organized by the government of China, outlaw miners, unaccountable to anyone, are rampant in several mineral rich districts of Tibet, particularly the traditional Tibetan province of Kham.
In some areas such miners are as much a part of the modern Tibetan landscape as the defrocked monks represented by Yangke in this novel. For many years the primary "illegal" monks in Tibet were those who had survived the wholesale destruction of temples and monasteries during the early years of the Chinese occupation. Now a new generation of orphaned monks is emerging out of the monasteries that Beijing's Bureau of Religious Affairs has permitted to reopen under its close regulation. Monks deemed politically undesirable, or who decline to submit to loyalty oaths, are ejected, prohibited from wearing robes again. Some make the often dangerous crossing to India to find monasteries outside their homeland. Others retreat to remote villages and do their best as monks without teachers, joining the ranks of the many unsung heroes in Tibet who struggle to maintain their ethnic and spiritual identity in the face of sometimes overwhelming adversity.
In his fifth case (after Beautiful Ghosts), Shan Tao Yun – former Beijing special investigator, ex-convict, and now an illegal resident in Tibet studying with Buddhist gurus Lokesh and Gendum – is called to a remote village to investigate two gruesome mutilation murders. The suspect, found at the scene in a deep trance, is a Navajo man seeking ancestral connections between his people and the Tibetans. Shan discovers that the village is ruled by a despot intent on keeping his position of authority at any cost. Once again, Edgar Award winner Pattison demonstrates his mastery of storytelling and rich characterization while brining to light the destruction of Tibet's mountains by the Chinese and illegal gold miners. Only Colin Cotterill comes close to this perfection. Highly recommended for all collections.
Fearful of drawing the attention of the official government in Beijing, Shan, a former government official who was once condemned to a village at the base of the sacred Sleeping Dragon Mountain in Tibet, to investigate a series of grisly murders in which the victims' hands had been severed and removed from the scene of the crime. A man who had descended from the mountain covered in blood is the only suspect, but he's a foreigner: A Navajo from America. Blackmailed into finding the killer, Shan must also discover the motive for the murders. But the secrets of Sleeping Dragon are not easily learned and the danger precedes every step.
One just doesn't read Prayer of the Dragon; one participates with Shan on his extraordinary quest for the truth. This is not a book to be read quickly. The atmospheric setting and crisply written narrative are meant to be savored. It is relatively long at over 350 pages, but there are a few unnecessary passages. And the plot is fairly complex. At some point, however, the mystery of the murders becomes somewhat secondary, replaced by the wonder and awe of the mountain and its centuries of history. Shan's journey is fraught with peril along the Bon kora, the ancient path to the summit, and the certainty of the unknown affects both Shan and the reader.
Here's a typical, beautifully written, almost lyrical paragraph from early in the book:
As great as the mystery of the killer's identity was the mystery of the victims'. [Shan's friend Lokesh would insist that the spirits of the dead, like those of all murdered men, still lurked nearby. Shan found himself scanning the darkened slope. He would have welcomed a conversation with the ghost. His first question would be the one that had gnawed at him since visiting the death site the first time, when he'd seen the lightning snake and a portion of a little wooden figure. Why were these Tibetan things being done in non-Tibetan ways?
Much later, when Shan is heading out, he tells a companion, "Someone once asked Lokesh what I do. He told the man I am a confessor of ghosts. It's the best description I have ever heard. In my experience the only people who can be relied upon always to tell the truth are dead."
There are many intriguing aspects of the story that add complexity to the plot. One is the potential historic link between the Navajo and the Bon and how it plays into the motivation of some of the characters. Another is the political climate of Tibet and the conflict between the official government in Beijing and the officially unofficial government of the Tibetan villages. Yet a third is in the characters themselves which are wonderfully and uniquely drawn and frequently behave in not quite expected ways.
The climax has a bit of an Indiana Jones feel to it but the final chapter is contextually fitting and appropriate conclusion to a most remarkable book.
Prayer of the Dragon is a captivating experience. It's one of the year's best mysteries.
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