18 December 2005

Beautiful Ghosts, by Eliot Pattison

This is the fourth novel Eliot Pattison has written about Shan Tao Yun, and the fourth that I have read. The others were (from first to third) The Skull Mantra, Water Touching Stone, and Bone Mountain.

Shan was once a highly-placed Inspector in Beijing. But uncovering the truth about the wrong people caused him to be discredited, removed from office, and thrown into prison in Tibet. In prison he comes to know and love the Tibetan monks sentenced to hard labor lao gai beside him. They impart an understanding of their spirituality, of Buddhism, and encourage him to strengthen his own Taoist practices. Religion is, of course, counter-revolutionary, and punishable by law in the People's Republic.

In each of these novels Shan is presented with a mystery that forces him to use the skills he once employed for his government. Overlaying each plot are the themes of the incredible beauty and spiritual mystery and power of Tibet and the Tibetan people, and their unspeakable oppression at the hands of the Red Chinese government.

In Beautiful Ghosts, Shan comes again into contact with Colonel Tan, the administrator of the county. Tan is once again trying to avoid political trouble with officials from Beijing. This time he is the reluctant host to Director Ming and Inspector Yao, who are searching for lost antiquities. A monk, Surya, is convinced that he has killed a man. As a result Surya casts off his robes and declares himself dead, and eventually takes up a new life among the people who carry night-soil in Lhadrung. Shan's old friends Gendun and Lokesh, illegal monks from the secret monastery of Yerpa, play important roles in this story, as do many other interesting Tibetan, Chinese, and British characters. Indeed, descendants of members of the Younghusband expedition of 1904 figure in this story.

An FBI agent from the USA, Corbett, is also involved, as is a trip to Beijing and the United States.

Again, Pattison has succeeded in writing a terrific police procedural tale, set in beautiful Tibet. He manages to evoke much of the Tibetan Buddhists' plight while celebrating their incredible spiritual strength. The ruggedness of the country and the people who live there left me with a strong impression of my own weakness and addiction to the comforts of life in 21st century America.

If you have not read any of these very entertaining and uplifting books I strongly recommend that you start with The Skull Mantra. Enjoy this rich experience of some of the best mystery writing coupled with fabulous descriptions of this country and its people, insight into the Buddhist religion and philosophy, and terrific character conceptualization and development.

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