Pattison’s second whodunit, once again featuring former Chinese Public Security Investigator Shan Tao Yun, is longer, more complicated—and, alas, more repetitious than his Edgar Award-winning debut, The Skull Mantra (1999).
Shan, just released from a slave labor camp and now studying Tibetan Buddhism in a secret monastery, complains at several points of being lost in the forbidding wilderness just north of the Indian border. The author offers this image as a metaphor for Shan’s agonizing quest to understand himself, his Chinese origins, and the terrible atrocities the Chinese government condones to break the back of the Tibetan people, but “lost” is also a regrettably apt description of how readers may feel as they try to navigate Pattison’s convoluted plot. Sent as part of a delegation of monks to solve the mystery of a Tibetan teacher’s murder at a distant capitalistic commune, Shan encounters a Khazakh couple carrying a dying child whom, they claim, was savagely butchered by a demon. Shan’s mentor, a monk named Gendun, disappears into the wilderness, leaving Shan to explore the strange relationships among the capitalist commune, a cruel political rehabilitation camp, a group of laptop-toting resistance fighters who call themselves the Maos, a cadre of lethal Chinese soldiers, and a vengeful female prosecutor seemingly intent on persecuting as many Tibetans she can find. More corpses, including a smuggler and other children, pile up as Pattison makes too frequent use of the device that made his debut thriller so marvelous: in the most desolate, lifeless places, Shan discovers hidden caverns, buried cities, a subterranean aqueduct, even an old guided-missile silo. The bulky passages are redeemed by moments of incredible beauty, as when the corpse of the murdered teacher is found inside an ice cavern limned by the handprints ancient and modern visitors.
Awkward and unsure, but animated by Pattison’s fascinating overlay of Buddhist spirituality on the familiar whodunit formula.