The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison: A review

Shan Tao Yun is Han Chinese, at one time an inspector in Beijing. That was before he got in the way of a powerful Chinese official when he probed in some inconvenient dark corners. 

Shan was then stripped of his rank, accused of "conspiracy," and unceremoniously shipped off to a Tibetan gulag, where he was put in a Tibetan work crew along with Buddhist lamas and priests whose gompa was destroyed by the Chinese invaders. We never do learn just what "conspiracy" Shan was supposed to be a part of.

In the work gang - the 404th is its designation - Shan is accepted by the Buddhists and, over the course of three years, he learns to admire them and their philosophy. He begins to learn the ways of their belief system. He is able to perform some important services for his group, one of which is to get an old lama freed on Chairman Mao's birthday. This secures his fame among the Tibetans.

Then one day, while his labor gang is working on a road up a mountainside, they discover a body under some rocks. The body is headless and the head cannot be found.

The local prosecutor is supposedly on vacation and there is no one to conduct an investigation of events. Colonel Tan, the commander in the area, knows of Shan Tao Lun and his former occupation, and temporarily releases him to be his investigator.

Shan is a brilliant investigator, methodical and clever and willing to follow every lead wherever it goes to find the truth, without regard to the consequences. That's how he came to be in Tibet in the first place.

When a Buddhist priest is arrested for the murder, which turned out to be of the "vacationing" prosecutor, Shan knows the man is not guilty and a sense of urgency is added to his investigation. If he cannot find the truth, the priest will be executed and the whole incident swept under the rug. This is an offense to Shan's sense of justice, and to his growing respect for the Tibetan people and their struggle for survival under Chinese rule.

Following Shan through the Tibetan community as he pursues his investigation was an eye-opening experience. Tibet is revealed as a society that exists as much in the spirit world as in the everyday world of human events. There is, for example, a profound belief in protective demons which are as real to them as the shoes on their feet or what they had for their last meal. Shan comes to believe that the embodiment of one of these protective demons is somehow involved not only in the murder he is investigating but in at least three others. But how will he be able to prove his theory, and will he be able to prove it in time to save an innocent man?

This book won the Edgar Award in 2000 for the best first mystery book by an American. Eliot Pattison has gone on to write several more in this series and I look forward to reading them all. This really was very well written and the character of Shan is a fascinating one. It will be very interesting to see how he develops.


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