The Skull Mantra

skull-mantra-eliot-pattisonby Eliot Pattison

I’ve never stopped suggesting Eliot Pattison’s thriller, The Skull Mantra (Minotaur, 2008), to mystery fans; and it has a place in my permanent book collection. It won a well-deserved Edgar award for Best First Novel when it was published in 1999. Pattison introduces Shan Tao Yun, who has been sent from his job as the Inspector General of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing to a forced labor camp in Tibet, where his fellow prisoners include Tibetan monks and other dissidents. 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.  It’s clear that the Colonel expects the murder to be blamed on a specific monk, and he tries bribing Shan with more food and better living conditions to accede to his directive.  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’re introduced to a singular and stunning country, its people, and its customs. I’ve seldom read a novel that more effectively captures the soul of its setting (Tony Hillerman comes close) in all of its contradictions, difficulties, and beauty.  Though Shan takes center stage, the real hero of this novel is Tibet, during its ongoing struggle for freedom from China.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Skull Mantra

  1. Sounds like a great book. Is it based on true events?

    • pearlspicks

      Not that I know of. The second or third one has a somewhat familiar (from history) plotline, though. At least I think I’m remembering it correctly.

  2. Darcy T.

    I love that The Skull Mantra is a constant favorite for you!
    I picked this up because of the cover art, and was surprised by both the simplicity of the writing and the complexity of the politics and social implications that were conveyed.
    It was a satisfying read as a mystery while the atmosphere of the cultural tensions were enlightening without being vehemently bitter, in spite of the cruel injustices.
    Although I work at a library, I also decided this one was worth owning!

    • Nancy

      It was so satisfying, wasn’t it? I have been less thrilled with all the sequels, though. Let me know if you read any of them and what you think.

      There’s a great older title of a thriller/mystery by Gus Lee called Tiger’s Tail – set in North Korea.

  3. Verla Kwiram

    I need help. Several years ago a friend recommended that I read a book a book by a female survivor of Theresienstadt, I believe it was (not sure). She was a teenager in the camps, if I remember correctly. She was a survivor in the way she conducted herself, and eventually was freed by the Allies. What made her story most memorable for me, however, was that she was later trained in psychology or psychiatry and became an international mediator, assisting in negotiations between nations, putting her belief that when two parties understand the different cultural assumptions that each makes, they can more readily come to a mediated settlement. She brings those understandings to the parties.

    This work fascinates me, and I am longing to find that book again. Can you help me???

    • pearlspicks

      Dear Verla – I am doing some research on this because much of your description reminded me of another book (that, unfortunately, differs in that the heroine of that book did not survive her concentration camp stay). While I am trying to find the book you’re referring to, take a look at An Interrupted Life: it’s a series of journal entries by a young woman named Etty Hillesum, who was a patient of a student of Jung’s, and chose to go to one of the “transit camps.” There are several books about her, but The Interupted Life one is the best, I think. There may be references to the woman that you’re thinking about in some of the group biographies in which Etty is included. If you do get a chance to read An Interrupted Life, let me know what you think. Best, Nancy

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