by 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.