Our Human Journey Bone Mountain, Chapter Seven

(Shan is on a treacherous journey to return a sacred relic to its spiritual home, stalked by soldiers and murderers. They are passing through a barren, high-altitude landscape where all temples, shrines, and monks have long ago been annihilated by Beijing. Shan is losing hope but then he joins a group of Tibetan herders who bring him to a hiding place by a remote mountain meadow, where he observes a miracle)

__________

Sometimes, Shan’s father had told him, people can live eighty or ninety years and only briefly, once or twice at most, glimpse the true things of life, the things that are the essence of the planet and of mankind. Sometimes people died without ever seeing a single true thing. But, he had assured Shan, you can always find true things if you just know where to look.
It was one of those rare true things they were glimpsing now. An ageless medicine lama gathering his herbs, a medicine lama who shouldn’t exist, in a field that had been forgotten for half a century, rising up like a ghost to confirm that once there had been wise, joyful old men who gathered plants so they could translate the magic of the earth to its people.
__________

It is an intriguing challenge to consider what are such true things in this post-modern world, where truth itself seems to have become so ambiguous. I fear many of us have become blind to such perceptions, for to experience them requires a level of self-awareness and contemplation that our society seems to abhor. The challenge is worth taking up, however, because it can not simply enrich our lives but also tell us much about ourselves and the way we experience the world. The “true things” can vary greatly based on our personal context, but I find a surprising commonality when probing these breath-stealing experiences of others. Is it perhaps because they resonate in some deep pool of our DNA, like mileposts in our human journey? I suspect that the true things experienced by our ancestors five hundred, or five thousand, years ago would raise similar reactions in us—they have little to do with technology or material wealth.

Don’t look for a dictionary definition of such “true things.” Others may call them epiphanies or transformative moments, or just plain miracles. The test is whether you viscerally feel the miracle, or just admire it because others say you should. These moments don’t simply excite you, they reach deeper. They raise gooseflesh in your soul. They strike what I might dare to describe as a primeval chord.

Where are the true things left to us? As Shan has sadly learned, many have been destroyed by ravenous political and economic forces, although we are hounded every day by “false positives,” the daily declaration of the news you can’t live without, so-called unprecedented weather events or history-making words from some celebrity. If you haven’t already, you must learn to ignore such hollow pronouncements and search deeper for your particular true things. They are rare in a modern city, and they are nowhere to be found on social media. There is no text to guide us to them, no catalog or checklist of such wonders. Experiencing them requires an open mind and open heart, and often patient observation. They are intensely personal, yet they are spine-tingling because they link us to something greater than ourselves. In my travels around the world I have been blessed to experience a few. One would be the ocean in a raging storm. Can you name one of your true things?

Eliot

Our Human Journey Beautiful Ghosts, Chapter Eight

(In trying to make sense of a series of murders and thefts with an unexpected British connection Shan stumbles upon a strangely Western-style cottage hidden in the remote Tibetan mountains. He explores the perplexing interior of the old home)

__________

Under the photo on the fireplace mantel was a box with a glass lid displaying several medals and a calling card. “Major Bertram McDowell,” Shan read out loud. “Royal Artillery.”
“McDowell?” Yao repeated in a surprised whisper, and stepped to his side.
“The major was stationed at a trading post in Gyantse for a year,” Liya said over their shoulders. “He had always been a painter and a writer. In Tibet he began to compile material for a book, the first English book, on Tibetan art. When he asked to be taught as Tibetan artists would, a lama told him to sit in a meditation chamber with nothing but a Buddha for a week, that he had to expand his deity, let it reach his fingers.”
“A lama from Zhoka,” Shan suggested.
Liya nodded, still facing the photograph. “He never turned back after that week. He declined home leave, requested extended tours of duty. Eventually he resigned and the lama brought him here, where artists had helped the Zhoka monks for centuries.”
“Why would this place be so hidden?” Yao inquired.
Liya turned, not toward Yao but toward the little Buddha on the altar. “Study Only the Absolute,” she said.

__________

Although this passage describes a fictional character, the army major from the early 20th century reflects the experience of many early visitors to Tibet. The British military excursion that brought the major to Tibet was not fictional, and the life of its leader, Colonel Younghusband, was changed forever by his experience at the roof of the world. Younghusband resigned from the army and dedicated his life to unifying the people of the world through religion.

I have long been fascinated by the way traditional Tibet released this spirituality in so many Western visitors. Was it simply that the isolation of the land, and the most remote, unique culture on the planet, somehow loosened inhibitions that had been bred into them? Was it because every Tibetan they met, whether government official, artisan or shepherd, was so intensely spiritual? Was it because the unimportance of material wealth in Tibet somehow shamed them, causing them to rethink their own ambitions? I don’t believe they were simply overpowered by the strangeness of Tibet, but perhaps they were stunned, and sometimes transformed, by the discovery of a world where no one hid their spirituality. Tibet, I believe, released instincts that had been suppressed by western culture. These aspects may well explain why, despite relentless genocidal efforts to crush it, Tibet has become something of a spiritual country that knows no borders.

Such tales reflect a questing spirituality within the human creature that has always been part of our journey. I believe, for example, that it was as much an element of Neanderthal cave art as the red ochre used by those ancient painters. I am convinced that this questing nature is in the human DNA, and although it may have been inhibited a century ago, today our shallow, instantly connected culture is virtually suffocating it. But ultimately it cannot be denied, at least not by those who seek to understand the long and amazing trek that led us to our current century. It was reflected in the placement of grave goods– a practice starting in Paleolithic times, just as it was in the way the ancient Egyptians translated mysteries of nature into animistic gods, and in the erection of stone circles and megaliths in so many ancient landscapes. Their particular quests took Zorastrians to the worship of fire, and Greeks to the construction of magnificent temples, further milestones in our passage.

Most cultures of our past never actually had a word for “religion.” Their belief systems were not some academic way of thinking, they were so intrinsic that they were the essence of these societies, and their people. I am not suggesting we should dissect any particular religion in search of new truths, but rather that we should recognize the vital importance of these spiritual quests in the human journey. Where are such soulful inquiries today? Those who speak of spirituality get mocked and negated with labels. When archaeologists study us in future millennia, will they conclude we worshipped our cell phones? I worry that many of us are detouring this path into a dead end. Perhaps it takes genuine courage to set aside our instant connections and pursue such quests today, and perhaps those quests will take us to new paradigms. We have learned from the sagas of our ancestors that it’s not about the destination, it is about the journey. Each of us must find our own way along that path, for we each have a different starting place, but the journey can teach us much about who we are, and perhaps help us better grasp the conclusion of the remarkable Jesuit philosopher-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Eliot

Our Human Journey The Skeleton God, Opening Passage

If you would know the age of the human soul, an old lama had once told Shan Tan Yun, look to Tibet. Here at the roof of the world, where humans were so battered, where wind and hail and tyranny had pounded so many for so long, it was a miracle the human spark remained at all. As Shan gazed at the old Tibetan herder beside him, knee-deep in mud, grime covering his grizzled, weathered face, and saw the eyes shining back with the joy of life, he knew that he was looking at something ancient and pure. In Tibet souls were tried, and souls were tormented, but always souls endured.

_____________

I could have used any number of passages from the Inspector Shan series to invoke the perseverance of the Tibetan spirit but this one paragraph seems particularly apt. It reflects not only the spiritual strength that shines through in these ruthlessly oppressed people but also the ability of Shan, the battered former gulag prisoner, to perceive, and celebrate, the miracle of that strength. As we slowly untangle ourselves from the shipwreck of this past year, we are well served by such lessons of human resilience. Far too many of us have emerged with anger, helplessness or melancholy resignation over the many ways events of the past year have disrupted our lives.

My entire Shan series, reduced to its essence, might be characterized as an anthology of human resilience. Many of my characters have suffered in unimaginable, though sadly authentic, ways. They have been cast out of their traditional homes and livelihoods, seen their families torn apart and even massacred, witnessed their culture being systematically destroyed and their temples, monasteries, and religious leaders annihilated. Like over a million Uighurs living to the north of Tibet, many of them have been virtually enslaved.

These are tragedies that have been repeated again and again throughout history, which teaches that nations and cultures don’t survive because they are somehow institutionally immune to such forces. Those that survive do so because of the strength of individual humans. The Tibetans endure because they consider the hardships that beset them to be just a passing storm. Even though that storm has persisted for decades, they have hunkered down and pressed on, their eyes still bright with that joy of life.

This resilience can’t be taught, can’t be mandated, can’t be accessed by clicking a social media button or listening to one more political speech. It has to be tapped from within. It is not simply a vital element of the human journey, it is the enabler of that journey. Ultimately this resilience is that of the human spirit. It is what has carried humans through trying times since we first climbed down from the trees. It is how people have risen up out of plagues, death camps, wars, and persecutions to push humanity forward. It saddens me to see how many seem to be waiting to be told how to deal with this tumultuous year, as if they have grown disconnected with their own spirit.. We deal with it like one more passing storm. We need to summon our inner Tibetan.

Eliot Pattison

Our Human Journey Mandarin Gate, Chapter Twelve

(Inspector Shan encounters a secret meeting of professors who have been transported to his remote town in Tibet because they had persisted in teaching about Chinese imperial history and Western literature. The leader of the group explains its purpose:)

__________

            “We call ourselves the Vermilion Society after the color of the ink reserved for the old imperial courts. Keeping old ways alive. Professor Wu,” he said, indicating the bald man, “prints up Sung poems and leaves them on doorsteps. Professor Chou,” he said, with a gesture to the woman, “organized a production of an old play from the Ming dynasty. We’d sweep old graves if there were any here. We try to remember things from old China and record them. There’s so few good history books left, and it’s been decades since a true history of China was written. There are wonderful things from the dynasties, things that need to be remembered.”

            “The truest history,” interjected Professor Wu, “is that built on a thousand tales of the common man.”

 _____________

Over thirty thousand years ago, flowers were laid at the grave of a Neanderthal man buried in a cave in what we now call Kurdistan. We know this because archaeologists have found the pollen of hollyhock, hyacinth and other flowers concentrated beside the bones. Ancient people were mourning at this grave, and leaving a token of affection. I would never dismiss them with a label of “cave men.” Rather they were early explorers in the human journey. They didn’t go extinct, they became us, as proven by the fact that each of us have about two percent Neanderthal DNA in our genome. It is wonderful that these early ancestors lingered over flowers and shared their beauty, but a touching tale of Neanderthal affection also lingers behind these ancient flowers. The bonds within family and community may be the most ancient of human values and have anchored families and societies throughout history –and, as we have now learned, prehistory.

Our post-modern world seems to steadily diminish such bonds, but those values remain intrinsically strong in most of us. The traditional Chinese world these professors speak of, and in which Inspector Shan was nurtured, was imbued with Confucian and Taoist wisdom and built around robust extended families. Despite the prolonged, deliberate efforts of Beijing to replace family with government as the foundation of personal life, those bonds persist and drive many of the “wonderful things” that need to be remembered. Even though he has no surviving family, their values, and their traditions, remain the source of Shan’s strength. In a society that has essentially banished uncles, aunts, and cousins through its repressive childbearing policies, Shan remembers those prior generations and their wisdom. In a crisis it is those time-tested values that lead him to justice, not the teachings, or laws, of his government. These are the experiences that drive our true histories.

As the old professors reflect in the above exchange, our history books are woefully inadequate. Even when they have not been hijacked by an author’s ideology, they still just provide sterile statistics and signposts from our passage. They report to us on politics and war but do little to convey the long, much more interesting trek of human experience. As Professor We suggests, that tale is a mosaic of life stories spanning millennia. History books begin with long-dead kings and ancient battlefields. The human tale begins with fossilized flowers.

Eliot Pattison

 

Our Human Journey Savage Liberty, Chapter 16

(Conawago speaks with Duncan as they gaze out over moonlit mountains near Lake Champlain)

___________ 

“…We are lost if you don’t recognize that everyone in this drama is in their ending times. All of us here. You try to convince yourself that you are different from us, but you are not. The life of your Highland tribe is gone, as is that of the Nipmuc, and the Abenaki and soon the Iroquois. But it doesn’t stop there. The Jesuits have glimpsed their ending. They may be desperate, but they have more power than you think.”

            “Only the kings survive,” Duncan said after listening to the owl again.

            “No. You are wrong,” his old friend replied. “There is an ending time for them too. King George has America, King Louis thinks he can get much of it back. But they don’t know the people who have taken root here. Those people are beginning to grasp the truth that the tribes have always known. Nothing important in life has ever been granted by a king.”

            Conawago shifted his gaze back over the silver-gilded mountains. Minutes passed before he spoke again, in a slow, reverent voice. “There is no land like this land,” declared the old Nipmuc, who had seen more of the world than anyone Duncan knew. “There is no freedom like this freedom.”

___________

One spring years ago I hiked over five hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail, alone, immersed in the natural world for several weeks. I experienced nature in ways I never had before, and as the days, and the mountains, passed by, I realized the wilds were strengthening me in aspects beyond the physical. I began to recognize an unfamiliar connection with the planet that to this day is still difficult to put into words. It brought an empowering sense of freedom but also a calm confidence, and deep gratitude for the endless beauty that surrounded me.

Those who have read my Bone Rattler books know that I endeavor to integrate the natural world into my tales. I have gone so far as to observe that the land itself is a character in those novels, and I am convinced that it played a profound role in shaping the American identity. I believe this phenomenon is not unique to our continent but has been present throughout human history, and cultures which have grown heavily urbanized and “tamed” all their lands, cutting themselves off from nature, have paid a price that has been little explored by historians and anthropologists.

The above exchange between Duncan and Conawago seeks to capture this dynamic, reflecting the wisdom of a long life rooted in both European and indigenous traditions.It is difficult to wrap words around this influence of nature but the quiet eloquence of the old Nipmuc at least offers a glimpse. “There is no land like this land,” Conawago declares. “There is no freedom like this freedom.” Those words could have been the motto for the American Revolution, although “nothing important has ever been granted by a king,” might have served equally well.

That land, that freedom, and that beauty is still available to us, and experiencing it can still be a powerful source of personal growth. Humans are more disconnected from their history than perhaps ever before. If you want to get closer to your ancestors, don’t just dig into books, venture into the wilds.

Eliot Pattison

 

Our Human Journey Chapter 12, The Skull Mantra

(In the remote mountains of Tibet, far from the gulag camp where Inspector Shan is a prisoner, his ruthless prison guard Sergeant Feng has confronted him while secretly  engaged in an act of ancient Chinese tradition. Feng’s reaction is not what Shan expects.)

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Trinle had once told Shan that people had day souls and night souls, and the most important task in life was to introduce your night soul to your day soul. Shan remembered the talk of Feng’s father on the road to Sungpo’s gompa. Feng was discovering his night soul.

They moved back to the ledge where Shan had sent his letter. Feng lit a small fire and produced a pencil stub and several of the blank tally sheets from the 404th. “I don’t know what to say.” His voice was very small. “We were never supposed to go back to family if they were bad elements. But sometimes I want to go back. It’s more than thirty years.”

“Who are you writing to?”

“My grandfather, like my father asked.”

“What do you remember about him?”

“Not much. He was very strong and he laughed. He used to carry me on his back, on top of a load of wood.”

“Then just say that.”

Feng thought a long time, then slowly wrote on one of the sheets. “I don’t know words,” he apologized, and handed it to Shan.

Grandfather, you are strong, it read. Carry me on your back.

“I think your words are very good,” Shan said, and helped him fashion an envelope from the other sheets. “To send it you should be alone,” he suggested. “I will wait down the trail.”

“I don’t know how to send it. I thought there were words.”

“Just put him in your heart as you do it and the letter will reach him.”

 ___________

 A complex context underlies this exchange, but the essential dynamic is that Sergeant Feng, brutal guard from Shan’s gulag prison camp, a soldier employed by the government that has destroyed Tibet and imprisoned Shan for exposing its corruption, is wavering. A month earlier he would have enthusiastically beaten Shan for a minor prison infraction. But now, separated from the prison and in the high Tibetan mountains he has witnessed Shan engaged in the traditional act of burning a letter to communicate with ancestors in the heavens. This isn’t about the tyranny Feng represents, it is about the soul crushing effects of participating in that tyranny. Its message is relevant in every part of our world today. Every chapter in our history, including that of the present, has seen ideologies invoked to suppress tradition, free speech, and eventually freedom. Sadly this seems a permanent part of the human journey. Our chronicles too often reduce them to soundbites and generalizations, as reflected in the words of one of the 20th century’s most notorious tyrants: “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” The dilemma for Shan is that he never sees the toll of the oppressed as a statistic, he just sees a million tragedies. He knows Sergeant Feng is an oppressor but he also knows Feng is a tragedy. A ruthless government claimed his soul decades earlier but now a small ember of that soul has begun to glow again.

My life grew richer, albeit more painful, when I realized how most histories and current commentaries confine themselves to trends, labels and sweeping summaries, allowing the writers to skim over the surface of profoundly important issues. By simply mentioning in passing that China annexed Tibet in the 1950’s, as is often the case, our chronicles ignore the painful lessons offered when a passive, spiritual culture is annihilated by a militaristic juggernaut ravenous for more land. In doing so historians become enablers of human suffering. It’s not a tribe or a population category that is suffering here, it is Inspector Shan and Sergeant Feng. We owe it to ourselves not to compartmentalize and file away dark chapters of our journey by simply referring to them as, for example, the “Holocaust” or the “gulag experience.”  The Holocaust was millions of Anne Franks and the gulag was hundreds of thousands of  Solzhenitsyns. The labels applied so relentlessly in today’s culture negate the lives of untold numbers of heroes and saints, who otherwise would have much to teach us. When humans practice intolerance and repression, humanity suffers.

Eliot Pattison

Our Human Journey

The fundamental joy of a well-crafted novel lies in its ability to transport you into another mind, to allow you to experience the world from the perspective of someone other than yourself, often someone in a very different place, or even time. The process may be painful, joyful, thrilling or tragic—even all of these at once, but when skillfully executed it is authentic, meaning that while the experiences in the novel may be new to the reader, they still resonate at some basic human level. Striking such an emotional or spiritual chord justifies the hours invested in reading such a novel, and long after the book has been finally closed the reader’s world has been enriched.

Our social media driven world, so quick to condemn and categorize, has no time for such experiences and no tolerance for considering the complex morality and motives that actually drive human beings. Notwithstanding the effects of our relentlessly connected world and the intolerant architecture of its social messaging, we do not live one dimensional lives and our morality does not function with on/off switches activated by algorithms. So many today pretend that they can navigate life by skimming over the surface of every issue and every relationship, negating anything that is thought-provoking by slapping a label on it. But the human is not programmed that way. Despite the cultural forces that seek to drag us into the shallows, we are deepwater creatures, as were those who came before us. It is not at all clear that we are better than our ancestors or those living in less materialistic cultures elsewhere on the planet today, and the pretense of popular culture that noisily suggests otherwise only diminishes us as humans. We desperately need reminding that we are all swimming in the same ocean of humanity, and the battered Buddhists of remote Tibet, as well as those who came before us, are right there beside us.

This is why I will be occasionally lifting brief passages out of my books and revisiting the characters, issues and setting from this broad perspective. The story of whom we are is not so different from the story of whom we have been. Our hearts and spirits can be informed, perhaps even enhanced, by the experiences of persecuted Tibetan lamas, rebellious daughters of British nobility, aged natives from disappearing tribes, outcast Chinese investigators, exiled Highlanders, and wily old inventors who dally with lightning. They are all companions in our amazing human journey.

Eliot Pattison

Eliot’s Cures for Pandemic Cabin Fever

Learn to talk with your pet.

If you are fortunate enough to be confined with a canine, spend time learning some of your dog’s vocabulary. Dogs are constantly expressing themselves, with their tails, mouth, ears and posture. What do those lifted paws mean? Did you know your furry buddy’s ears have several positions, each conveying something? There are a surprising number of identified moods, requests, and exclamations communicated by canines. Cat people, take your best shot, but we all know cats are more introspective—kind of like communicating with the Sphinx.

Start a pandemic diary.

Hit the pause button and record your experience during these pandemic weeks. This too will pass, but such unprecedented experiences may be worth remembering for posterity. Ultimately a diary is a thinking tool–and in taking the time to more deliberately chronicle your experience you may discover some interesting lessons about yourself and your household. If you need a catalyst to ignite your effort, take a look at some famous diaries—Samuel Pepys secret 17th century diary, Lewis and Clark’s journals, or even the wrenching record written by Robert Scott as he suffered slow death in Antarctica or Anne Franke’s impossibly hopeful account written from her wartime hiding place.

Read, read, read.

Turn off the television and streaming devices and join with the more thought-engaging world of novels. Try something off your usual list to mix it up (maybe even discover that literary mysteries can be as fulfilling as the best of mainstream novels). You can’t travel far in real time right now so transport yourself to the world inside a novel. Experiences in foreign lands are not beyond your reach even while in quarantine.

Draw a family tree.

Where was your DNA a century ago? Two hundred years ago? Write it down. Try your hand at a tree or chart and challenge yourself to go back at least four generations. Remarkable genealogical tools are available online. Go discover your 19th century relatives! Get their vital statistics but then do what I do with my own ancestors and piece together the stories of their lives.

Use your hands.

Try something creative that is normally beyond your scope. Perhaps pen and ink drawing? Calligraphy? Watercolors? Maybe, if you have the space and tools, a little carpentry or some new flower beds? All these stay at home weekends should make for some fantastic summer gardens.

The Diverse Cast of Freedom

The miracle of the founding of the United States wasn’t that of heroic military victories, it was the unprecedented victory—unique in prior human history—of shared values over ethnicity, culture, religion and race. In many ways that is the essential message of my Bone Rattler series, as vividly reflected in my latest installment Savage Liberty. It isn’t by coincidence that the casts of my novels include Scottish indentured servants, Mohawk matriarchs, Irish laborers, English aristocrats, African slaves, Oneida warriors and German missionaries, for it was such a diverse collection of characters who made up the threads that were bound into the unique tapestry of America.

Our younger generations are taught so little history that they often misunderstand this critical element, wrongly thinking that our core values were imposed by some club of crusty white males in powdered wigs. The seeds of liberty germinated in men and women of multiple cultures and faiths and were fertilized throughout our wide geography in markedly different cities, villages, farmlands and tribal wilderness tracts. Those seeds didn’t create a revolution at first, they created an identity crisis. Everyone arrived on these shores as someone else. For all of history until that date your birth defined you. Based on your parents, your sex, your faith, your race and your economic station your destiny was set in a lockstep pattern. You were labeled and stereotyped, so innately that you were likely not even aware of it. In the Old World, a German was a German, an Englishman an Englishman, forever and always. Immigrants who would have been at war against one another had they stayed in Europe learned to abandon old prejudices while struggling to survive and succeed in the dramatically different New World. They were gradually transformed, evolving new identities around shared notions of individual liberty.

Coming to America changed everything for these, and later, immigrants. Old identities were no longer relevant, and the anchors of ethnicity and culture that had defined human interaction since the beginning of history became less and less important in defining the individual. The colonists began to realize that their greatest strength didn’t derive from differing views but from supporting each other’s personal freedom. Our forefathers didn’t use their many differences as an excuse for intolerance, they used them to test and ultimately gather around common values. This critical early role of diversity is too often lost in our history books. Did you know there were Muslims in 18th century South Carolina who contributed to our constitutional debate? Did you know that a Jewish merchant, one of the wealthiest men in America, gave his entire fortune to the cause of the Revolution and died penniless?

Letting shared values lead public discourse was, and still is, the cure for intolerance. Our forebears first discovered that they were capable of acting independently of old stereotypes and prejudices but then—and this was the key—they discovered the power of acting independently together. Ideals built around the dignity of the individual grew strong because of the diversity behind them, not in spite of it. Whether farmer, merchant, warrior, trapper, or clergyman, man or woman, young or old, those colonists began to recognize values they shared despite their very different experiences and roles in society.

Discovering these shared ideals was the critical foundation that made revolution possible, and the reason it took hold was because it transcended all traditional identities. Diversity was an essential ingredient in the founding of America. Those who today invoke diversity under the guise of identity politics to drive a wedge between our diverse populations completely misunderstand this critical point, and ignore what is the singlemost important lesson of our history.

The true power of diversity, in the 18th century and today, has always been the power of shared values. Our founding was all about building bridges between diverse people, not driving them apart. There is no power in divisiveness. Lest you forget this vital point, you’ll find a reminder, sent across the centuries, on every penny in your pocket or purse. E Plurius Unum, the power of one out of many, was the source of the strength that founded the United States and that sustains us today.

Harvesting the Wonders of Historical Mysteries

Both of the series I write are set in faraway places—the Inspector Shan series rendered distant by geography, the Duncan McCallum/Bone Rattler series by time. That distance gives me a headstart as a mystery writer by providing a stage that is itself implicitly puzzling even before I introduce the players. There is no stage more mysterious to most modern readers than that of the past. We are sadly disconnected from our roots, but when we catch a scent of something familiar reaching through the fog of time, it can stir long-neglected instincts. The first time I ever reread a book immediately after finishing it I was in the fifth grade, and the book, loaned by my teacher, was Conrad Richter’s Light in the Forest, set in colonial America. I’ve been hooked on historical fiction ever since, and hooked on writing historical mysteries ever since the first Duncan McCallum novel.

 

When constructed by an author who stays true to period context, historical mysteries can be mesmerizing. An engaged reader can discover an inner music when historical chords are played, a resonance that is distant yet familiar, a bond that links him or her to the human experience across time. Those past years are where we come from, and knowing where we come from is indispensable to knowing whom we are. Without that knowledge we are, as Michael Crichton observed, just a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. I’m not pinning disconnected facts to some sterile backdrop when I describe my settings, I am summoning the reality of our past lives to breath life into flesh and blood characters who are recognizable to modern readers. Ultimately I am tapping into the DNA in all of us—and trust me, that DNA that makes you you was walking around in live bodies in 1765. Our truest history, our most important history, isn’t in books, it is in our blood.

 

By its nature the historical mystery thus offers multiple layers of mystery, as the enigmas of the author’s plot overlay the mystery of the historical setting. Umberto Eco ensnares his readers as readily with the arcanum of his ancient abbey in The Name of the Rose as he does with the question of why one Franciscan wants to drown another in a barrel of blood. When I send my characters to 18th century Philadelphia, I want that remarkable colonial capital to be so alive it breaths like another character in my tale. I want my readers to hear hoofbeats on cobblestones and inhale the vivid scents wafting from herb gardens, beeswax candles, fishmonger carts and manure in timbered stables. I want them to gasp at the forest of masts on the broad Delaware, and pause, suddenly skittish, at the glimpse of the loinclothed warrior visiting from the northern forest.

 

I work hard to make sure the backdrops of my novels are neither cliche nor blurred. I want my readers to become, like me, students of the human mystery and the remarkable cultures that have created and sustained it. The most satisfying moments for author and reader alike arise when history and plot intersect. The motives of the confessed Iroquois murderer in one of my novels, for example, only become clear when his ancient tribal traditions are understood. It is this amalgam, this alloy of human truth and human experience across spans of time, that is the ultimate reward of reading, and writing, historical novels.

 

Albert Einstein once said that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” I think a lot of readers are searching for that sense of wonder, to explore beyond the commonplace. The real gift of the well-executed historical mystery is that it requires the reader to stop treating the world as some familiar assumption, and confront it instead as an open question.

Both of the series I write are set in faraway places—the Inspector Shan series rendered distant by geography, the Duncan McCallum/Bone Rattler series by time. That distance gives me a headstart as a mystery writer by providing a stage that is itself implicitly puzzling even before I introduce the players. There is no stage more mysterious to most modern readers than that of the past. We are sadly disconnected from our roots, but when we catch a scent of something familiar reaching through the fog of time, it can stir long-neglected instincts. The first time I ever reread a book immediately after finishing it I was in the fifth grade, and the book, loaned by my teacher, was Conrad Richter’s Light in the Forest, set in colonial America. I’ve been hooked on historical fiction ever since, and hooked on writing historical mysteries ever since the first Duncan McCallum novel.

 

When constructed by an author who stays true to period context, historical mysteries can be mesmerizing. An engaged reader can discover an inner music when historical chords are played, a resonance that is distant yet familiar, a bond that links him or her to the human experience across time. Those past years are where we come from, and knowing where we come from is indispensable to knowing whom we are. Without that knowledge we are, as Michael Crichton observed, just a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. I’m not pinning disconnected facts to some sterile backdrop when I describe my settings, I am summoning the reality of our past lives to breath life into flesh and blood characters who are recognizable to modern readers. Ultimately I am tapping into the DNA in all of us—and trust me, that DNA that makes you you was walking around in live bodies in 1765. Our truest history, our most important history, isn’t in books, it is in our blood.

 

By its nature the historical mystery thus offers multiple layers of mystery, as the enigmas of the author’s plot overlay the mystery of the historical setting. Umberto Eco ensnares his readers as readily with the arcanum of his ancient abbey in The Name of the Rose as he does with the question of why one Franciscan wants to drown another in a barrel of blood. When I send my characters to 18th century Philadelphia, I want that remarkable colonial capital to be so alive it breaths like another character in my tale. I want my readers to hear hoofbeats on cobblestones and inhale the vivid scents wafting from herb gardens, beeswax candles, fishmonger carts and manure in timbered stables. I want them to gasp at the forest of masts on the broad Delaware, and pause, suddenly skittish, at the glimpse of the loinclothed warrior visiting from the northern forest.

 

I work hard to make sure the backdrops of my novels are neither cliche nor blurred. I want my readers to become, like me, students of the human mystery and the remarkable cultures that have created and sustained it. The most satisfying moments for author and reader alike arise when history and plot intersect. The motives of the confessed Iroquois murderer in one of my novels, for example, only become clear when his ancient tribal traditions are understood. It is this amalgam, this alloy of human truth and human experience across spans of time, that is the ultimate reward of reading, and writing, historical novels.

 

Albert Einstein once said that “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” I think a lot of readers are searching for that sense of wonder, to explore beyond the commonplace. The real gift of the well-executed historical mystery is that it requires the reader to stop treating the world as some familiar assumption, and confront it instead as an open question.