About the Book
Publisher: St. Martin's Paperbacks (April 15, 2001)
When a headless corpse is found on a remote Tibetan mountainside, veteran inspector Shan Tao Yun is the perfect candidate to solve the crime--except he's been stripped of rank and imprisoned in the gulag for offending the Party in Beijing. Desperate to close the case before the arrival of high-profile American tourists, the district commander grants Shan a temporary release. The embittered but brilliant Shan soon discovers the victim was notorious for persecuting Tibetan priests. When Party officials try to thwart Shan's investigation by arresting an innocent monk, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue. His search for justice takes him from an American mining project in Tibet to a secret, illegal monestary. Gradually, Shan exposes a massive crime machine that can only be stopped with the help of an unlikely alliance of Americans, aged monks, and even a sorcerer. This is a novel of great hope and great tragedy, of incredible greed and stalwart selflessness, and of the tremendous gulf between those who live for enlightenment and those who live for power.
From the Author
Nearly twenty years ago I sat in a Tibetan Buddhist temple in China, hoping to spend a peaceful hour as the monks paid homage to a giant sandalwood Buddha. But I soon noticed that several monks kept nervously shifting their eyes toward the uniformed officers of the Public Security Bureau who were positioned conspicuously throughout the temple. I was saddened by the way the government had disturbed the serenity, but I soon realized that what was happening within those temple walls was part of a far bigger human drama. The eyes of the monks sometimes showed fear but they also showed vast determination and dedication and hope. As much as anything, that afternoon was the beginning of The Skull Mantra. Repeated visits to China, when I sought out opportunities to visit temples, speak with monks, and talk to ordinary Chinese about life in the People's Republic helped me to see the vast complexity of this drama, and the many perspectives that define it. When, after writing four books on international law and global business topics, I decided to undertake a novel, I knew that this struggle, and the rich heritages of China and Tibet, would be its backdrop. I tried to capture as many dimensions of the Tibet/China struggle as possible in The Skull Mantra, based not only on my many visits to China but also on extensive research into the Tibet that existed before Beijings's "liberation" nearly fifty years ago. Obviously it touches upon the wonderfully complex world of Tibetan Buddhism, but not so much in its modern theological elements as in the way it has defined culture and human behavior. The Buddhists in this novel are rooted in the very old, unreformed sects of Tibet, not simply because their beliefs lend themselves to the mystery of the book but because they reflect most vividly how remote and starkly different Tibetan culture was before the People's Liberation Army arrived. Also, because I have acquired such a deep respect for the people of China--not their government, but the people--the story is balanced with the perspectives of Shan, a Chinese protagonist who himself has been victimized by the government and is as shaken by what Beijing has done in Tibet as any Tibetan native. Finally, I did not want to ignore the gnawing, dehumanizing effect that Beijing's occupation of Tibet has had on the Chinese officials who administer it. Shan has a mystery to solve but, as he has learned from his Tibetan friends, his challenge isn't simply to find an answer but to find it with dignity and compassion.
"One of the hottest debut novels of the season."
-- Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"The Skull Mantra does for Tibet what Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park did for Russia. .. . a colorful moving portrayal of a strange and complex Tibet under an iron fist. As suspenseful as it is beautiful and tragic."
-- Portsmouth Herald
"Few [thrillers] can match the power and poetry of this debut novel ... a rare combination of excitement and enlightenment."
"There is no faster way to get under the skin of a country in turmoil than with the needle of a murder investigation. . . A thriller of laudable aspirations and achievements."
--The Chicago Tribune
"My favorite novel of the year ... I loved it."
--The Poisoned Pen
"The Skull Mantra is not just another episodic whodunit set against an exotic backdrop. It is both a precise gear-toothed thriller and a presentation of a culture being methodically dismantled."
--Fox News Online
"Reviewers frequently compare a new writer to Tony Hillerman; here is a truly possible successor."
"Eliot Pattison has hit a home run with his first fiction outing. Pattison's writing is lyrical and suffused with energy; a perfect combination for a thriller set in the mysterious and ancient land of Tibet ... Pattison skillfully creates a picture of modern-day Tibet ... Altogether, this is not a book you'll soon forget."
"Set in the mountainous regions of Lhasa, this first novel is a stark and compelling saga ... As in Tony Hillerman's Navajo mysteries, Pattison's characters venerate traditional beliefs and mystical insight as a tool for finding murderers. Pattison writes with confident knowledge and spare, graceful prose."
"Vivid, absorbing, intruiging."
"A cocktail of action and adventure ... A great read."
"Very nearly perfect ... I missed deadlines, trains, dinners, dates, appointment, and chores reading this great book, and so will you."
--The London Student
"Lyrical, riveting ... Pattison has opened a new vista on the thriller genre."
"A moving and beautiful thriller absorbed in the past and present of an extraordinary country and its people."
--The County Times
Then a local Chinese official is discovered -- headless -- near the road construction project Shan has been assigned to. A Chinese colonel assigns Shan to solve the case, then bribes him with food and better living conditions, making it clear that he expects the murder to be blamed on a specific monk. As we follow Shan in his attempts to remain true to his conscience, appease the colonel, survive inhumane conditions and, finally, solve a complex mystery, we are introduced to a singular and singularly beautiful country, its people and its customs. I've seldom read a novel that more effectively captures the soul of its setting, in all of its contradictions, difficulties and beauty. The real hero of this novel is Tibet during its struggle for freedom from China.
That an American international lawyer should take it upon himself to make this the theme of his first work of fiction could add salt to the would; the U.S., after all, leads an international community which has tiptoed around the Chinese for half a century without ever properly challenging them over Tibetan human rights issues.
Pattison, however, not only knows his Tibet. He loves it with a deep passion and has found a way to catalogue Chinese atrocities without it sounding like propaganda; to seek inside of the Tibetan soul and not romanticize it.
In The Skull Mantra, the Chinese are not all baddies and the Tibetans are certainly not all goodies. This is a thriller, a dective story as intricate as a Chinese puzzle. It is the stuff of nightmares in which no-one and nothing is as it seems.
Shan is a Chinese who has fallen from high places for presuming to criticize the regime. He has experienced the pain, humiliation, and degradation of public denouncement, torture, and hard labor. Because he was an investigator in Beijing, he is smuggled out of a Tibetan prison camp by the local Chinese commandment to make a report about the murder of a Chinese official. There's no promise of release, his guard is ostensibly an unreconstructed brute, and the young man assigned to help him is a former Tibetan monk who's been "re-educated" to understand the error of his ways with a promise of a job and a flat in Shanghai. Buddhist monks and Tibetan dissidents are the prime suspects. A chinese official is determined to have an execution and refuses to let evidence get in the way of conviction.
So far, so the expected anti-Chinese bias and Pattison certainly does not fail to weave into his Chinese puzzle every atrocity carried out in the name of assimilation. In the race against time to uncover the facts and save a man from a bullet in the head, however, Pattison reveals through Shan whole rafts of values which are alien to even a sympathetic West. That he can see Americans as others see them without turning them into characatures is a measure of his still in the world of fiction.
Pattison first visited China 20 years ago. His books and articles on international policy issues have been published internationally. He has successfully made the transfer from what the lay person would certainly perceive as the dry and precise world of international law to this emotional, colorful, sensitive arena of fiction.
He has not simply researched the complex, mystical world of Tibetan Buddhism; he has fallen in love with it. He has not only assimilated the facts about one nation's rape of another: he has understood that it is not only Tibetans who have suffered as a result of being denied their culture, their religion, and their language. The Chinese, transferred to Tibet in their droves to complete the process of ethnic cleansing, must adjust to this unyielding land.
There are many strands to this narrative, and Pattison never lets one of them loose. Only when he ties, knots, and trims fraying edges at the conclusion of The Skull Mantra is a Western desire for "happily ever after" in this life, rather than the next, allowed to escape.
Pattison casts his plot as a murder investigation. A headless body is discovered by a Chinese-run prison labor crew (mostly Tibetan) in Tibet's remote Lhadrung County. Because the local prosecutor is away, and because the case must be closed quickly in order to satisfy Beijing, the country's Chinese governor, one Colonel Tan, turns for help to an unlikely source: a Chinese member of the prison crew, Shan Tao Yun, once a top Public Security Investigator in China but now in exile and behind bars. Aiding Shan in his investigation are his Chinese government liaison, Feng, and a Teibetan, Teshe, a former Buddhist monk now working for the prison administration system.
The case also takes Shan to areas of Tibet both expected (Lhasa) and unexpected (the forbidding high mountainous region of Kham). The author's description of these sites are potent (upon first seeing the Potala, Shan sinks to his knees: "Its huge lower walls, brilliant white and sloping steeply upward, gave the main structure the appearance of a vast, golden-roofed temple floating about Himalayan snows ... Never before in his life had Shan been afraid to look at something. He felt unworthy to stare at the building"). As such, the book offers a crisp, immediate travelogue of the Land of Snows, as well as of Tibetan Buddhism, with its mix of sophisticated meditative practice and adaptations of folk belief.
More importantly, Shan's investigations bring him into contact with a range of Tibetans, Chinese, and Americans (a group of Yanks pursuing a mining project plays a key role in the plot). It is in these characterizations that the book truly shines. Pattison conjures men and women on all points of the moral spectrum, from the saintly Choje Rinpoche, once abbot of a Tibetan monastery, now spiritual leader of the prison labor crew, to the icy-hearted Chinese major who, like so many of his countrymen, despises Tibetans and their beliefs. These extreme figures are sharply drawn, but the richest characters are those who embody the customary human mix of good and evil -- Shan himself, for example, and Col. Tan, and, in particular Teshe, who despite vigorous indoctrination by the Chinese ultimately can't resist the call of the dharma. While these people blend good and evil in satisfyingly complex ways, however, Pattison leaves no doubt as to what exactly he considers good (Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism) and what evil (the Chinese Communist system and its adherents who have invaded Tibet). His novel, with its depictions of monks in chains, blasted monasteries, and Chinese-sponsored devastation of the Himalayan environment, is a fierce polemic in story guise, serving up a searing indictment of the Chinese rape of Tibet.
Suspense runs high throughout, as Pattison employs variants of traditional storytelling stratagems -- will the real killer be found before a Buddhist hermit falsely accused of the crime is convicted and executed? Will Shan, Col. Tan, and Teshe submit to self-interest or fight for truth despite the consequences? -- to maximum effect. Like its obvious inspiration, Gorky Park, Pattison's novel uses the lens of thriller fiction to illuminate brilliantly the state of a (to Americans) little-known culture. That the culture is Tibetan Buddhist, under
dire attack from Chinese influence, makes The Skull Mantra not only an exhilarating read, but an important one, politically and morally.
First published in the fall of 1999, The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison has just won the 2000 Edgar Award for best first novel. It deserves that, and any more awards anyone can think of.
In Tibet, a headless corpse is found by a prison work gang. Among the Tibetan monks in the gang is a Chinese man, who was a successful police investigator before being tortured and imprisoned for not conforming to communist ideals. Shan is ordered by a Chinese military commander to solve the murder, and quickly -- American tourists are coming soon. But as with everything involving Chinese politics, there is another agenda.
"It's the socialist context that's important ... A murder investigation is pointless unless it can become a parable for the people," Shan says, with characteristic sarcasm.
But this is Tibet, where mysticism is intermingled with murder; perhaps, as several monks believe, the murderer is a demon. The investigation leads Shan to exotic locales, from secret shops where the chanting of a skull mantra can summon such demons, to hidden cloisters of monks in Tibet's vast mountain ranges. Pattison's depictions of characters is just as vivid, from a Chinese official who struggles with his conscience, to a Tibetan monk who cannot deny his heritage.
Above all, though, it is the textured and touching character of Shan who carries the novel. He is philosopher, interrogator and most dangerous of all, a seeker of the truth.
"I am beginning to understand you," a Chinese official tells Shan. "You solve problems by creating a bigger one. I wager that has a lot to do with why you are in Tibet."
The Skull Mantra is so good you can't wait to pick it back up, but then you find yourself reading slower and slower because you can't bear for it to be over. And when you do reach its perfect conclusion, you're sad that these rich and complex characters, these exotic places, aren't in your life anymore. One hopes there is a mantra to make Eliot Pattison write more, and soon.
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