The Skull Mantra
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Minotaur|
The corpse is missing its head and is dressed in American clothes. Found by a Tibetan prison work gang on a windy cliff, the grisly remains clearly belong to someone too important for Chinese authorities to bury and forget. So the case is handed to veteran police inspector Shan Tao Yun. Methodical, clever Shan is the best man for the job, but he too is a prisoner, deported to Tibet for offending Beijing. Granted a temporary release, Shan is soon pulled into the Tibetan people’s desperate fight for its sacred mountain and the Chinese regime’s blood-soaked policies. Then, a Buddhist priest is arrested, a man Shan knows is innocent. Now time is running out for Shan to find the real killer…in an astonishing, emotionally charged story that will change the way you think about Tibet— and freedom— forever.
Not many political thrillers are set in Tibet, and few can match the power and poetry of this debut novel by journalist Eliot Pattison. At the heart of the story is a forced labor camp where the Chinese imprison Buddhist monks and other local dissidents they’ve swept up since taking over Tibet. The prison also holds a few special Chinese prisoners—including Shan Tao Yun. This middle-aged man was once the inspector general of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing, specializing in fraud cases. For reasons even he doesn’t understand, he has been imprisoned and brutalized, and now he spends his days breaking rocks high in the Himalayas on a road crew called the People’s 404th Construction Brigade. Shan manages to survive under these harsh conditions thanks to the spiritual guidance of his fellow prisoners, but this precarious balance is threatened by the discovery of the headless body of a local Chinese official near a road construction site.
The dead man’s head soon turns up in a famous shrine—a cave that contains the skulls of heroic monks. The shrewd Red Army colonel in charge of the district asks Shan to conduct an investigation: offers of better food and conditions combined with threats against his monk friends convinces him to take on the task. Colonel Tan wants a fast resolution that imcriminates a mute, passive monk found near the cave, but Shan is certain that the man isn’t guilty. More likely killers include other high-ranking Chinese officials, as well as some American mining capitalists who had personal as well as financial dealings with the dead man.
By engaging his readers in a mass of details, Pattison makes us believe completely in Shan and his perilous situation—and creates a rare combination of excitement and enlightenment. —Dick Adler