Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison

What a mystery masterpiece! I would recommend keeping notes on the different Tibetan sects such as ragyapa's, purbas, and so on; plus, the complex Tibetan Buddhism theological elements that define culture and make people act the way they do. I got so caught up in the mystery that I quit taking notes and then forgot which sect was responsible for what and had to backtrack to refresh my brain. Of course, you readers who don't forget details (I hate you) won't need any notes. That said, this is one heck-of-a-complex story and Pattison pulls it together in an exciting climax that is satisfying and enlightening.

Shan Tao Yun was an investigator for the Ministry of Economy in Beijing before angering the Party when he tried to expose corruption within the Party. Now he suffers in a Tibet prison with fellow monks. He adopted their religion that helps him not only survive the horrors of prison-life, but has given him friends in unlikely places. When the work crew find the corpse of a headless man, Shan's unique skills learned in Beijing are discovered by Colonel Tan who pulls him from prison temporarily to investigate the murder. Tan is a hot-tempered, ruthless man who does not care about the truth at first, but who finds his behavior changing as he deals with Shan, the Tibetan monks, and the investigation.

Shan's mantra is to seek the truth no matter what the consequences; a rare trait in a society that has experienced the revolution of Communism and the baggage that goes with it such as suppression of truth, dissidents, and Tibetan culture. The silk scarf rising on an updraft at the start of the novel symbolizes the complex China/Tibet struggle that victimizes the population on both sides of the argument. Pattison not only shows the Tibetan conflict but the Chinese officials who struggle to carry out the orders amidst corruption and greed. A strength of the story is the complex development of the protagonist and supporting characters who change as they deal with these issues and it adds great depth through the exploration of cultures who conquer other cultures and go on to eradicate their history and people.

Clues are laid out in such a way that it feels as if two mysteries are being solved. It is unpredictable in so many ways and on so many levels. The complexity of plot, the terrific development of character make it rise above your normal everyday mystery novel. The loose ends are tied up and I loved the twist at the end. The only question I had was Yeshe. His story doesn't seem to be over and I wonder if he pops up in the sequels. Or maybe I didn't want his story to be over because his internal changes made me sad in his hopeless view of events that had transpired in the investigation.

I am sitting in Bali trying to write this as fast as I can because the Internet is somewhat unstable and my netbook battery is even more unstable. Perhaps I can come back and revisit this review because I'm not really doing this book justice. It was terrific and I'd read it again in a heartbeat. I think I really should read it again to understand the intricate plot. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys.

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