Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison

First Line: They called it taking four.

A prison work detail in Tibet find a headless corpse dressed in American clothes high on a windy cliff in the Himalayas. The remains are obviously of someone too important to bury and forget, but Chinese authorities want no part of investigating the crime. They have to find the perfect someone to shoulder all the responsibility-- and all the blame. Their choice is Shan Tao Yun, a veteran police inspector, and he's perfect for this job no one wants because he is a prisoner who's been deported to Tibet for offending an official in Beijing. Granted a temporary release, it doesn't take long for the methodical, wily Shan to be pulled into the Tibetan people's fight for their sacred mountains and the Chinese regime's bloody tactics. When a Buddhist priest-- a man Shan knows is innocent-- is arrested and charged with the crime, Shan knows he must work even faster to unmask the real killer.

I slid into this book effortlessly and was spellbound throughout. This book is as much about the land and the people of Tibet as it is a skillfully plotted and gracefully written mystery. In the depths of a desert summer, Pattison had me shivering with cold in a prison camp high in the Himalayas. I suffered with the prisoners, and I watched, amazed, as Shan Tao Yun deftly wove his way through a labyrinth of Tibetan customs and the cruel and callous bureaucracy of the Chinese. I am always somewhat impressed and aghast at the subtleties involved in such a completely different mindset. Shan always seemed to know when to push an advantage and when to retreat; how to look for the open window when a door is slammed shut in his face. You would think that such a man, unjustly accused and doing whatever he can to survive in hellish conditions, would become bitter and hard. Shan has not. Living as he has with the priests and other Tibetan prisoners, he seems to have absorbed their quiet calm and infinite kindness. When you combine this behavior with his sharp policeman's mind, you create an incredibly powerful and memorable character.

As I was learning about Chinese prison conditions and the contempt and cruelty the Chinese have shown the Tibetan people over the years, I was also falling in love with the landscape. How could I not with passages such as this:

The seeds of the night sky grew in Tibet. There the stars were the thickest, the dark blackest, the heavens closest. People looked up and cried without knowing why. Prisoners sometimes stole from their huts... to lie on the ground silently watching the heavens. The year before... an old priest had been found in such a position one morning, frozen, his dead eyes fixed on the sky. He had written two words in the snow at his side. Catch me.

As is so often the case when reading a book that deals with a mindset so entirely alien to mine, I didn't even try to deduce what had happened or who had killed the American. I was pulled along in the strong current of Eliot Pattison's lyrical narrative, hoping that it would never end. This is one of the best books I've read this year, and I look forward to continuing the series.

Catch me. 

The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison
ISBN: 9780312385392
Minotaur Books © 2008 (originally published 1999)
Paperback, 416 pages

Police Procedural, #1 Shan Tao Yun mystery
Rating: A+
Source: Paperback Swap 


  1. This is one of my favourite mystery series and I've read most of them except for the latest two which your post has reminded I must read. I'm so happy to see this review on your blog. I learnt so much about Tibet and its struggle for independence and who can resist falling in love with the country after reading Pattison's novel?

    1. I can't wait to read more of this series-- it's marvelous!

  2. Cathy - I need no more convincing. This has just gone on to my TBR list. A story that tells me about a part of the world I know too little about, with a likeable protagonist? Sign me up.

    1. I am so glad I saw this book mentioned... somewhere. I can't even remember where, but it doesn't really matter!

  3. I'm definitely going to read this before the end of 2013! Thanks for putting me on to it.


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