Winner of the 2001 Edgar Award for Best First Novel, The Skull Mantra was a sensation when first published and received wide acclaim from critics and readers alike. The Skull Mantra is ranked as a novel about a people and a place--the Tibetans of the high Himalayas--as it is a gripping thriller.
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 someone high up in Beijing's power structure. Granted a temporary release, Shan is soon pulled into the Tibetan people's desperate fight for its sacred mountains 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.
The Skull Mantra is the winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
Critical acclaim ranks The Skull Mantra as a novel about a people and a place-- the Tibetans of the high Himalayas-- as it is a gripping thriller. Winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, author Eliot Pattison masterfully scales the heights of the genre, taking the readers to the top of the world while he chills us to the bone.
Eliot Pattison is the author of The Skull Mantra, which won the Edgar Award and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, as well Water Touching Stone and Bone Mountain. Pattison is a world traveler and frequent visitor to China, and his numerous books and articles on international policy issues have been published around the world.
They called it taking four. The tall, gaunt monk hovered at the lip of the five-hundred-foot cliff, nothing restraining him but the raw Himalayan wind. Shan Tao Yun squinted at the figure to see better. His heart clenched. It was Trinle who was going to jump — Trinle, his friend, who just that morning had whispered a blessing on Shan's feet so they would not trample insects.
Shan dropped his wheelbarrow and ran.
As Trinle leaned outward, the updraft pushed back, ripping away his khata, the makeshift prayer scarf he secretly wore around his neck. Shan weaved around men swinging sledgehammers and pickaxes, then stumbled in the gravel. Behind him a whistle blew, followed by an angry shout. The wind played with the dirty scrap of white silk, dangling it above Trinle's reach, then slowly twisting it skyward. As it rose, the prisoners watched the khata, not in surprise but in reverence. Every action had a meaning, they knew, and the subtle, unexpected acts of nature often had the most meaning.
The guards shouted again. But not a man returned to his work. It was a moment of abject beauty, the white cloth dancing in the cobalt sky, two hundred haggard faces looking upward in hope of revelation, ignoring the punishment that would surely come for even a minute's lost time. It was the kind of moment Shan had learned to expect in Tibet.
But Trinle, hanging at the edge, looked downward again with a calm, expectant gaze. Shan had seen others take four, all with the same anticipation on their faces. It always happened like this, abruptly, as if they were suddenly compelled by a voice no one else could hear. 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 labor brigade.
Shan scrambled forward and grabbed Trinle's arm just as he bent over the rim. Instantly Shan realized he had mistaken Trinle's actions. The monk was studying something. Six feet below, on a ledge barely wide enough to accommodate a swallow's nest, lay a glittering gold object. A cigarette lighter.
A murmur of excitement pulsed through the prisoners. The khata had scudded back over the ridge and was plummeting to the slope fifty feet in front of the road crew.
The guards were among them now, cursing, reaching for their batons. As Trinle moved back from the edge, now watching the prayer cloth, Shan turned back to his upset wheelbarrow. Sergeant Feng, slow and grizzled but ever alert, stood beside the spilled rocks, writing in his tally book. Building roads was in the service of socialism. Abandoning one's work was one more sin against the people.
But as he plodded back to accept Feng's wrath, a cry rang out from the slope above. Two prisoners had gone for the khata. They had reached the pile of rocks where it had landed but were on their knees now, backing away, chanting feverishly. Their mantra hit the prisoners below like a gust of wind. Each man dropped to his knees the instant he heard it, taking up the chant in succession until the entire brigade, all the way to the trucks at the bridge below, was chanting. Only Shan and four others, the sole Han Chinese prisoners in the brigade, remained standing.
Feng roared in anger and shot forward, blowing his whistle. At first Shan was confused by the chant, for there had been no suicide. But the words were unmistakable. It was the invocation of Bardo, the opening recitation for the ceremonies of death.
A soldier wearing four pockets on his jacket, the most common insignia of rank in the People's Liberation Army, trotted uphill. Lieutenant Chang, the officer of the guard, spoke into Feng's ear, and the sergeant shouted for the Han prisoners to clear the stack of rocks discovered by the Tibetans. Shan stumbled forward to where the khata lay and knelt beside Jilin, the slow, powerful Manchurian known only by the name of his province. As Shan stuffed the scarf up his sleeve, Jilin's surly face took on an air of anticipation. With a surge of new energy he shoved aside the rocks.
It was not unusual for the lead work team, assigned to clear the largest boulders and loose surface rocks, to encounter the unexpected. A discarded pot or the skull of a yak was often discovered along the routes surveyed by the engineers of the PLA. In a land where the dead were still offered to vultures, it was not uncommon even to encounter the shards of human beings.
A half-smoked cigarette appeared in the rubble. As Jilin snatched it with a purr of delight, a pair of brightly polished boots appeared beside them. Shan leaned back on his haunches and watched as Lieutenant Chang's expression changed to alarm. His hand jerked to the pistol at his belt. A shrill outburst died on his lips, and he stepped behind Feng.
This time, the People's 404th Construction Brigade had beaten the vultures. The body lay outlined by the rocks that had covered it. Its shoes, Shan saw at once, were of real leather, in an expensive Western fashion. Under a red V-necked sweater, a freshly laundered white shirt glistened.
"American," Jilin whispered with awe, not for the dead but for the clothing.
The man wore new blue jeans — not the flimsy Chinese denim for which street vendors sold pirated Western labels, but the real thing, made by a company in the United States. On the sweater was an enamel pin of two crossed flags, American and Chinese. The man's hands were folded over his belly, giving the impression of someone lying in repose at a guesthouse, waiting to be called for tea.
Lieutenant Chang quickly recovered. "The rest, dammit," he snarled, shouldering Feng forward. "I want to see the face."
"An investigation," Shan said without thinking. "You can't just —"
The lieutenant kicked Shan, not hard, but with the motion of one accustomed to dealing with troublesome dogs. Beside Shan, Jilin flinched, reflexively shielding his head with his hands. Lieutenant Chang impatiently stepped forward and grabbed the exposed ankles. With a peevish glance at Feng, he jerked the body away from the remaining rocks. Instantly the color drained from Chang's face. He turned away and retched.
The body had no head.
"Idolatry is an attack on the socialist order," a young officer barked into a bullhorn as the prisoners were marched toward a line of decrepit gray troop trucks long ago retired from army service. "Every prayer is a blow against the people."
Break the Chains of Feudalism, Shan silently bet to himself, or Honoring the Past Is Regression.
"The dragon has eaten," called out a voice from the ranks of prisoners.
A whistle blew for silence.
"You have failed to make quota," the political officer continued in his high-pitched drone. Behind him was a red truck Shan had never before seen at the construction site. MINISTRY OF GEOLOGY, it said on the door. "You have shamed the people. You will be reported to Colonel Tan." The officer's amplified words echoed off the slope. Why, wondered Shan, would the Ministry of Geology need to be there? "Visiting rights suspended. No hot tea for two weeks. Break the Chains of Feudalism. Learn the will of the people."
"Fuck me," an unfamiliar voice muttered behind Shan. "Lao gai coffee again." The man stumbled into Shan's back as they waited to climb into the truck.
Shan turned. It was a new face to the squad, a young Tibetan whose small rugged features marked him as a khampa, from the herding clans of the high Kham plateau to the east.
As the man saw Shan his face instantly hardened. "You know lao gai coffee, your highness?" he snarled. The few teeth he had left were blackened with decay. "A spoonful of good Tibetan dirt. And half a cup of piss."
The man sat on the bench opposite Shan and studied him. Shan turned the collar up on his shirt — the tattered canvas that covered the rear of the truck did little to shield them from the wind — and returned the stare without blinking. Survival, he had learned, was all about managing fear. It might burn your stomach. It might sear into your heart until you felt your soul smoldering. But never let it show.
Shan had become a connoisseur of fear, learning to appreciate its many textures and physical reactions. There was a vast difference, for example, between the fear of the torturer's bootsteps and the fear of an avalanche descending on an adjacent work crew. And none compared to the fear that kept him awake nights as he searched through his miasma of exhaustion and pain, the fear of forgetting the face of his father. In the first days, during the haze of hypodermics and political therapy, he had come to realize how valuable fear could be. Sometimes only the fear had been real.
The khampa had deep scars, blade marks, on his neck. His mouth curled with cold scorn as he spoke. "Colonel Tan, they said," he growled, looking about for acknowledgment. "No one told me this was Tan's district. From the Thumb Riots, right? The biggest son of a bitch in an army of sons of bitches."
For a moment it seemed as though no one had heard, then a guard suddenly leaned through the flap and slammed his baton against the man's shins. A grimace of pain twisted the khampa's face, fading into a spiteful laugh as he made a small, twisting gesture toward Shan, as though with a knife. With studied disinterest, Shan shut his eyes.
As the flap was tied shut behind them and the truck groaned into movement, a low murmur rose in the darkness. It was nearly imperceptible, like the sound of a distant stream. During the thirty-minute ride to their camp, the guards were in the truck cabs, and the prisoners were alone. The fatigue in the squad was almost palpable, a weary grayness that dulled the ride back to camp. But it did not relieve the men from their vows.
After three years, Shan was able to identify the men's malas, their rosaries, by sound. The man to his left fingered a chain of buttons. On his other side the bootleg mala was a chain of fingernails. It was a popular device: one let the nails grow, then clipped and collected them, until reaching the required one hundred and eight, on thread pulled from blankets. Some rosaries, made only of knots tied from such thread, moved silently through callused fingers. Others were made of melon seeds, a prized material that had to be carefully guarded. Some prisoners, though, especially the recent arrivals, were more concerned with the rituals of survival than the rituals of Buddha. They would eat such rosaries.
With each seed or fingernail, knot or button, a priest recited the ancient mantra, Om mani padme hum. Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus, the invocation to the Buddha of Compassion. No priest would recline on his bunk until his daily regime of at least one hundred cycles was completed.
The chants worked like a salve on his weary soul. The priests and their mantras had changed his life. They had made it possible for him to leave behind the pain of his past, to stop looking back. At least, most of the time. An investigation, he had said to Chang. The words had surprised him more than they had the lieutenant. Old ways died hard.
As fatigue pushed his consciousness back, an image pounced on him. A headless body, sitting upright, fidgeting with a gold cigarette lighter. The figure somehow took notice of him, and reluctantly extended the lighter toward Shan. He opened his eyes with a gasp, suddenly short of breath.
It was not the khampa who was watching him now, but an older man, the only prisoner with a genuine rosary, an ancient mala of jade beads which had materialized months earlier. The man who used it sat diagonally across from Shan, with Trinle, on the bench behind the cab. His face was worn smooth as a cobblestone except for the ragged scar at the left temple where a Red Guard had attacked him with a hoe thirty years earlier. Choje Rinpoche had been the kenpo, the abbot, of Nambe gompa, one of the thousands of monasteries that had been annihilated by the Chinese. Now he was kenpo of the People's 404th Construction Brigade.
As Choje said his beads like the others, oblivious to the lurching of the truck, Trinle dropped a small object wrapped in a rag into his lap. Choje lowered his rosary and slowly unwrapped it, revealing a stone covered with a rust-colored stain. The old lama held it reverently, studying each facet, as if it held some hidden truth. Slowly, as he discovered its secret, a great sadness filled his eyes. The rock had been drenched with blood. He looked up and met Shan's stare again, then nodded solemnly, as if to confirm Shan's sense of foreboding. The man in the American jeans had lost his soul there, in the middle of their road. The Buddhists would refuse to work the mountain.
As the trucks pulled to a stop inside the compound, the rosaries disappeared. Whistles blew and the canvas was untied. Through the gray light of dusk the prisoners plodded in silence into the squat plank buildings that housed them, then quickly emerged with the tin mugs that served each man as wash basin, food plate, and teacup. They filed through one side of the mess shed to have their mugs filled with barley gruel and stood in the dusk, coming to life as the warmth of the gruel reached their bellies. Prisoners silently nodded to each other, offering tired smiles. If anyone spoke, he would be sent to the stable for the night.
Back in the hut, Trinle stopped the new prisoner, the khampa, as he moved across the room. "Not here," the monk said, pointing to a rectangle drawn in chalk on the floor.
The wiry khampa, apparently familiar with the invisible altars of prison barracks, shrugged and moved around the rectangle to an empty bunk in the corner.
"By the door," Trinle announced quietly. He always spoke in the same worshipful tone, as though in awe of his every waking moment. "Your bunk would be by the door," he repeated, and offered to move the man's kit.
The man seemed not to have heard. "Buddha's breath!" he gasped, studying Trinle's hands. "Where's your thumbs?"
Trinle cocked his head toward his hands. "I have no idea," he said with a tinge of curiosity, as though he had never considered the question.
"The bastards. They did it to you, didn't they? To keep you from your rosary."
"I still manage. By the door," Trinle repeated.
"There's two empty bunks," the man snapped. He was no priest. He leaned back on the straw pallet as though challenging Trinle to move him. The fiercest resistance fighters ever to oppose the People's Liberation Army had been those from Kham. They were still being arrested in the remote ranges for random acts of sabotage. Outside, a khampa from the southern clans, who had resisted the army long after the rest of Tibet was subdued, was still prohibited from possessing any weapon, even a blade of more than five inches.
The man removed one of his tattered boots and with great ceremony removed a slip of paper from his pocket. It was a sheet from one of the guards' tally pads, which sometimes blew open in the wind. He held it up with an exaggerated smile and pushed it into his boot for added insulation. Life in the 404th was measured by the thinnest of victories.
As he rewrapped the rags that served as his socks, the new arrival studied his cellmates. Shan had seen the routine more times than he could count. Each new prisoner first looked for the chief priest, then for the weak who would make no trouble. For those who had given up and those who could be informers. The first was easy. His eyes quickly settled on Choje, who sat lotus fashion on the floor beside one of the central bunks, still studying the rock in his hand. No one in the hut, no one in the entire lao gai brigade, emitted such serenity.
One of the young monks produced a pocketful of leaves, sprouts of the weeds that had begun to emerge on the mountain slopes. Trinle counted them out and distributed them, one leaf to each prisoner. Each of the monks accepted his leaf solemnly and whispered a mantra of thanks toward the man whose turn it had been to risk punishment for gathering the greens.
Trinle turned back to the khampa as the man chewed his leaf. "I am sorry," he said. "Shan Tao Yun sleeps there."
The khampa looked about and settled his gaze on Shan, who sat on the floor near Choje.
"The rice eater?" he snarled. "No khampa lets a damned rice eater beat him." He laughed and looked around. No one joined.
The Skull Mantra (Inspector Shan Tao Yun Series #1) 4.2 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
Eliot Pattison is quite different, perhaps not for everyone. He has written/is writing two different series - that is, books that follow two different characters in two very different times. But there are basic similarities.
His initial award-winning series follows Detective Shan, a Han Chinese who was once a highly-placed detective in Beijing but whose investigations into corruption among high Party officials finally got him framed and disgraced, "investigated" as an enemy of the State - which involved three years of torture, both physical and chemical - and eventually banished to a labor camp - hard labor prison - in occupied Tibet.
There he was saved by the lamas who - so long as they survive which is often not all that long - are imprisoned there also.
Shan deeply admires the lamas, especially one who becomes his "rinpoche" - honored teacher. He strives to rid himself of the elements of his past life and to adopt the beliefs and attitudes of his teachers and friends. But Shan has a skill - he solves mysteries, both of the physical world and of the human spirit, in ways no one else around him can. This is because he is accepted by the Tibetans as one who honors and wishes to be one with them and yet he has an attribute they do not: he sees the world in terms of cause and effect. They do not; they see the world in the immediate present - what happens does so because it was fated to be that way.
So in The Skull Mantra, which is the first in a series, both the Tibetans and the ruling Chinese occupiers turn to Shan to find the answers to deep mysteries - involving murders - and to resolve situations that otherwise would cause great harm to everyone in the area, Tibetan and Chinese alike.
A note about this book and series: Pattison is deeply outraged by China's occupation of Tibet, even more by China's efforts to eradicate the traditional cultures and religions of the peoples of Tibet. His series featuring Detective Shan is an expose of what is happening in occupied Tibet - the rape of Tibet by the Chinese.
What is going on there is completely understandable from the perspective of the Chinese, especially those in the government there. They believe that all culture stems from Chinese roots and that the Party must become the substitute for religious beliefs and structures which they consider oppressive of the masses. Pattison, being strongly opposed, makes sure to show the brutality of the occupation.
Thing is, he gets onto it pretty strongly. Some may find the expose part gets in the way of the story. The first couple of books in the series are pretty heavy into that. It's illuminating and well worth the effort - but as i said, it may be a bit heavy-handed for some.
One other thing: these novels move at the pace of Shan's spiritual journey. As a result, you follow events but they don't rule the book. At one point i asked my wife what was happening in the Pattison book she was reading. She responded, "Not much; this is Pattison." True. It's like you are presented with a diorama, a broad representation of what happened at an exotic and distant (in all senses as this all takes place in Tibet, "at the roof of the world") place and what the book does is take you from one element to another, presenting you with different visions until these elements all come together and you understand what actually occurred.
I liked them, found them well worth the effort; i've read every book
More than 1 year ago
This series should be read in order, to understand fully the happenings. However, even singly, this book is touching, and helps the average reader understand the trials and tribulations the Tibetan peoples and culture have endured while under Chinese control.
More than 1 year ago
Too long.....disconnected....boring....I could hardly wait to put it down.
More than 1 year ago
When China defeated Tibet, the people were forced into prison work gangs. While working on a road along a mountainside, prisoners find a headless corpse. The Beijing party is desperate to close the case because American tourists would soon be arriving, so they force a prisoner to investigate the murder. The prisoner is Shan Tao Yun, an ex-police inspector. Shan is temporarily released, but is made very aware of the harsh consequences if he runs. The commander wants the case solved quickly with no suspicions that it was actually a murder. Shan soon discovers a connection between a Buddhist demon and the murder. He is torn between the regulations that he must abide by and his Buddhist beliefs of protecting his fellow Tibetans. Through many obstacles of hatred, greed, and scandals, he discovers the truth of murder, drugs, and the demon Tamdin. A dominant literary element throughout the book is setting. Tibet is a home to many beliefs and superstitions that are not accepted by the Chinese. For a prisoner during this time, beliefs are the only thing that can give hope. Shan is forced to go against the Buddhist faith to be politically correct and take the side of his enemies. He is faced with the conflict of going against his own or doing wrong by not discovering the murderer and saving the spirit. Shan is torn between the two because his fellow prisoners will be punished if he does wrong. Shan feels very strongly about his work gang, there are many respected Buddhists in the gang. Tibetan ways reveal unity and one must choose between his people and religion or his enemy and their power to destroy that unity, in the Skull Mantra a prisoner is freed to do right for his enemy or follow what he believes in the investigation of a murder.
More than 1 year ago
Pattison introduces a new kind of hero in his suspenseful novel The Skull Mantra. One time high-ranking prosecutor, now political prisoner Shan, is a middle-aged, regular guy just trying to do his job and live an honorable life. He doesn't shoot anyone or blow up anything, yet manages to prevent a miscarriage of justice and establish harmony in many lives. Dialog in The Skull Mantra is realistic and creates depth in his characters. There are no 2 dimensional, all-right or all-bad, characters; each is complex. He demonstrates over and over how one must know context, history and self in order to recognize right and wrong. In its emphasis on comprehensive understanding without bias and prejudgment Skull Mantra is reminiscent of the 'Speaker for the Dead' from Stephen Donaldson's 'trilogy,' Ursula LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven and Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature. Pattison brings an exotic treasure back from Tibet and makes history the fascinating subject it should be in schools.
More than 1 year ago
Well written and the Tibetan info is interesting, but I do get tired of Americans being portrayed constantly as idiotically naive and gullible. How could this stupid woman ever have gotten a corporate job of any kind, let alone plant manager, with such a hogh degree of ignorance about the way of the world? Answer: she couldn't have,, no way,no how.
More than 1 year ago
Fascinating and absorbing twist on detective fiction. The people of Tibet and their relationships with China are part of the fascination. Inspector Shan is a terrific protagonist.
More than 1 year ago
The best thing about The Skull Mantra is the detail it goes into regarding China and Tibet, and the philosophical and religious depths it plunders. I learned a great deal about the people and the situation in the area. As for the plot, I found it confusing at times and had a hard time keeping the myriad characters straight. I also thought it dragged in spots and could have been shortened. Still, if it is cheap enough and you enjoy a detective story with an unusal and complex background, this novel could be for you.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
The plot is good. But it jumps around so much and bounces back and forth between things that the reader has no reference for.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
I was not only entertained, but educated about Tibetean culture as well.
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