cover image The Skull Mantra

The Skull Mantra

Eliot Pattison, Pattison. Minotaur Books, $24.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-312-20478-5

A venerable plot device--the discredited detective given one last chance--is invested with stunning new life in this debut thriller from a veteran journalist who clearly knows his exotic territory. The gulags of Tibet, where the Chinese keep the Buddhist monks and other locals they've swept up since occupying the country, also house a few special Chinese prisoners. Shan Tao Yun, working as a laborer on a road crew called the People's 404th Construction Brigade high in the Himalayas, was once the inspector general of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing before he was imprisoned for refusing Party membership. Now he struggles to survive his harsh new life, gaining spiritual sustenance from the monks in his brigade. The discovery of the headless body of a local official, wearing American clothes and carrying American cash, changes all that, as Shan is threatened and cajoled by the shrewd colonel in charge of the district into conducting an investigation. Col. Tan wants a quick and dirty job that implicates a monk found near the site, but Shan knows the man isn't guilty: more-likely culprits include other high-ranking Chinese and a pair of American mining entrepreneurs. To encourage Shan to come to a rapid resolution, Tan dangles the fate of the monks of the 404th before him, surrounding their barracks with brutal Public Security troops. Like Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko, Shan becomes our Don Quixote, an apolitical guide through a murky world of failed socialism. As his Sancho, Pattison has created another memorable character, an ambitious and conflicted young Tibetan called Yeshe, who can ""sound like a monk one moment and a party functionary the next."" Set against a background that is alternately bleak and blazingly beautiful, this is at once a top-notch thriller and a substantive look at Tibet under siege. (Sept.)