Author: Eliot Pattison

Publisher Minotaur Books

ISBN: 978-1250067623

I asked to review Skeleton God, the ninth mystery in Eliot Pattison's Inspector Shan Tao Yun series, because I had just read The Skull Mantra, the first in the series. 

At the beginning of The Skull Mantra, Shan, who is Chinese, is in a Tibetan prison camp having pursued an investigation too aggressively back in Beijing. When a prison work gang finds a headless corpse on a windy Tibetan mountainside, Colonel Tan, the district commander, springs Shan from the prison with the understanding that Shan will solve the murder before an American tourist delegation arrives and do it in a politically expedient manner, which may require executing an innocent monk—something Shan cannot permit. 

As Pattison's website says, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue involving American mining interest, Tibetan sorcerers, corrupt Party officials, a secret illegal monastery, and the Tibetan resistance movement. 

I have some quibbles about The Skull Mantra. The maelstrom into which Shan is thrown is complex, and between the Chinese and Tibetan names and Pattison's efforts to convey the recent history of Chinese/Tibetan relations (not to mention Tibetan Buddhist customs and spirituality), it can be heavy sledding to follow the plot's twists. Nevertheless, The Skull Mantra is a superior and fascinating first effort.

Eight books later in Skeleton God, Shan is the constable of a remote Tibetan town. Colonel Tan, while not Shan's friend, recognizes his value and uses him as best he can. Shan's son, Ko, mentioned but not appearing in the first book, is now a prisoner in Shan's former prison. The story begins when Shan investigates a report that nun has been assaulted by ghosts. In an ancient tomb by the old nun, Shan finds the mummified and gilded remains of Buddhist saint buried centuries ago, the remains of a Chinese soldier murdered fifty years before, and an American man (!) murdered only hours earlier (!!). What is going on?

It is to Pattison's credit that what goes on is plausible and engaging. He is able to use historic events—an 1897 earthquake, the predations of the Red Guards, the Chinese looting of Tibetan shrines and monasteries—serve his again complex plot. 

Shan is an interesting character. He speaks Tibetan and English as well his native Chinese. Because official China has been doing its best to eliminate Tibetan customs and culture for the last fifty years, the local people regard Shan warily when not actively hostile. Because Shan's beloved son is a prisoner and could be shipped to a much harsher prison (although the 404th Construction Brigade is hardly a Boy Scout camp), Shan has to be careful on whose toes he treads. Because the careful reader can figure out who the bad guy is about halfway through the book, we still want to know (I still wanted to know) exactly what he did and why he did it. It all makes for interesting tension. 

Either because I had just read The Skull Mantra and was thereby familiar with the names and language or because after writing eight Inspector Shan mysteries Pattison made Skeleton God easier to follow. A friend felt that the first book should come with a Cast of Characters and a Glossary of Buddhist Terms. I disagree. 

Part of the novels' pleasure is learning from context about Tibetan culture and its recent history. The mystery is interesting, but both The Skull Mantra and Skeleton God offer much more than challenging puzzle. Pattison tells me something about a world I know nothing about, and I trust his word.