Inspector Shan Tao Yun

(creator: Eliot Pattison)

Eliot Pattison
Shan Tao Yun is a former senior investigator for the Chinese government who got too inquisitive for his own good. So when we first meet him, he is breaking rocks in a Tibetan prison camp high in the Himalayas with Buddhist monks as his fellow prisoners for the last 3 years. He is said to have been "the last honest man in Beijing". He made a fine detective because "he was incapable of giving up." His wife, a devoted Party member, had arranged for their marriage to be annulled two years before, despite the fact that they had had a son.

Eliot Pattison (1951 - ) is a much-travelled American lawyer specialising in international trade, about which he published many articles and books. He has developed a particular concern about the Chinese control of Tibet and its impact on local culture. So his crime novels include 10 Inspector Shan stories. He is married with three children and lives on a farm in Pennsylvania.

The Skull Mantra (2100)
The Skull Mantra
starts in an appalling labour camp in Chinese occupied Tibet. Shan is a prisoner there when a smartly dressed headless corpse is discovered on the bleak moutainside, and he is forced to become a detective once more. As he uncovers a web of intrigue involving a beautiful American mining engineer, Tibetan sorcerers, corrupt Chinese officials and the Buddhist Resistance, he begins to realise that far more than his own survival is at stake.

This was a prizewinning first novel but I must admit I found it very hard to read, what with all the foreign names such as purba, mudra, kenpo, khata, chandzoe, tamzing, jungpo and many more, the meaning of which I simply could not remember. Perhaps a glossary would have helped. I also found it difficult to remember who all the characters were, so ended up not being able to tell my Trinle from my Tromso.

On a positive side, the setting is certainly brought to life and there are memorable individual incidents, such as Shan's visit to a sky burial site where the ragyapa carried out their gruesome work: "They weren't accustomed to anyone but each other. Even other Tibetans seldom ventured near, except to leave the body of a loved one and a pouch of money or basket of goods in payment." And as vultures waited, even children played with blades of wood, pretending to saw up joints.

The Tibetan Buddhist background is ever-present with constant thoughts of reincarnation ("Suicide was a grave sin, certain to bring reincarnation as a lower life form. But opting for life on four legs could be a tempting alternative to life on two in a Chinese hard labour camp.") A huge pack of dogs turn out to be "reincarnations of priests who broke their vows". There seem to be demons at work too: there is a belief that "the balance has been disturbed, and an imbalance produces evil. It could be manifested in a person, in an act. The balance can be restored with the right rituals, the right priest." Even Shan writes a letter to his long dead father then sets fire to it to send it on its way. It all sounds a long way from the more sophisticated beliefs associated with Western Buddhists.

It certainly makes an original story, and the horrors of the unusual background are effectively brought to life, but I found it all too confusing. However, in view of the favourable reviews, I tried the second book in this series of ten, but gave up a third of the way through. It was just too much like hard work.

The author has his own particularly informative website.

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The Skull Mantra cover
The cover certainly attracts attention.
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