The Skull Mantra

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Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks (April 15, 2001)

When a headless corpse is found on a remote Tibetan mountainside, veteran inspector Shan Tao Yun is the perfect candidate to solve the crime–except he’s been stripped of rank and imprisoned in the gulag for offending the Party in Beijing. Desperate to close the case before the arrival of high-profile American tourists, the district commander grants Shan a temporary release. The embittered but brilliant Shan soon discovers the victim was notorious for persecuting Tibetan priests. When Party officials try to thwart Shan’s investigation by arresting an innocent monk, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue. His search for justice takes him from an American mining project in Tibet to a secret, illegal monestary. Gradually, Shan exposes a massive crime machine that can only be stopped with the help of an unlikely alliance of Americans, aged monks, and even a sorcerer. This is a novel of great hope and great tragedy, of incredible greed and stalwart selflessness, and of the tremendous gulf between those who live for enlightenment and those who live for power.


Nearly twenty years ago I sat in a Tibetan Buddhist temple in China, hoping to spend a peaceful hour as the monks paid homage to a giant sandalwood Buddha. But I soon noticed that several monks kept nervously shifting their eyes toward the uniformed officers of the Public Security Bureau who were positioned conspicuously throughout the temple. I was saddened by the way the government had disturbed the serenity, but I soon realized that what was happening within those temple walls was part of a far bigger human drama. The eyes of the monks sometimes showed fear but they also showed vast determination and dedication and hope. As much as anything, that afternoon was the beginning of The Skull Mantra.

  • Voted by #7 of the top 10 Mystery/Thrillers of 1999
  • IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Nominee Finalist for the prestigious
  • British Golden Dagger Award for Best First Novel Winner of the Edgar
  • Award from the Mystery Writer’s of America for Best First Novel

“One of the hottest debut novels of the season.”
— Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“The Skull Mantra does for Tibet what Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park did for Russia. .. . a colorful moving portrayal of a strange and complex Tibet under an iron fist. As suspenseful as it is beautiful and tragic.” — Portsmouth Herald

“Few [thrillers] can match the power and poetry of this debut novel … a rare combination of excitement and enlightenment.”

“There is no faster way to get under the skin of a country in turmoil than with the needle of a murder investigation. . . A thriller of laudable aspirations and achievements.” —The Chicago Tribune

“The Skull Mantra is not just another episodic whodunit set against an exotic backdrop. It is both a precise gear-toothed thriller and a presentation of a culture being methodically dismantled.” –Fox News Online

“Reviewers frequently compare a new writer to Tony Hillerman; here is a truly possible successor.” —Boston Globe

“Eliot Pattison has hit a home run with his first fiction outing. Pattison’s writing is lyrical and suffused with energy; a perfect combination for a thriller set in the mysterious and ancient land of Tibet … Pattison skillfully creates a picture of modern-day Tibet … Altogether, this is not a book you’ll soon forget.” –Writer’s Write

“Set in the mountainous regions of Lhasa, this first novel is a stark and compelling saga … As in Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, Pattison’s characters venerate traditional beliefs and mystical insight as a tool for finding murderers. Pattison writes with confident knowledge and spare, graceful prose.” —Library Journal

“Vivid, absorbing, intriguing.” —Sunday Telegraph

“A cocktail of action and adventure … A great read.” —The Guardian

“Very nearly perfect … I missed deadlines, trains, dinners, dates, appointment, and chores reading this great book, and so will you.”
–The London Student

“Lyrical, riveting … Pattison has opened a new vista on the thriller genre.” –Mayo News

“A moving and beautiful thriller absorbed in the past and present of an extraordinary country and its people.” –The County Times

“I’ll never stop suggesting Eliot Pattison’s first thriller, The Skull Mantra, to mystery fans. In his first novel, Pattison introduced Shan Tao Yun, who has been sent from his job as the inspector general of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing to a forced labor camp in Tibet, where his fellow prisoners include Tibetan monks and other dissidents.

Then a local Chinese official is discovered — headless — near the road construction project Shan has been assigned to. A Chinese colonel assigns Shan to solve the case, then bribes him with food and better living conditions, making it clear that he expects the murder to be blamed on a specific monk. As we follow Shan in his attempts to remain true to his conscience, appease the colonel, survive inhumane conditions and, finally, solve a complex mystery, we are introduced to a singular and singularly beautiful country, its people and its customs. I’ve seldom read a novel that more effectively captures the soul of its setting, in all of its contradictions, difficulties and beauty. The real hero of this novel is Tibet during its struggle for freedom from China.” –Nancy Pearl

“Good books take us places we can’t reach without transport: a remote locale, an alien culture, another time, or into the heart and mind of a remarkable character. Pattison provides truly remarkable transport, setting the reader in a forced-labor brigade in contemporary Tibet. Most of the prisoners are Buddhist monks, stoically resisting starvation, torture, and psychological indoctrination by their Chinese captors. One prisoner, Shan, is Chinese; no one, including Colonel Tan, the brigade commander, knows what offense caused Shan to be sent to Tibet and slow, near-certain death. It is known, however, that Shan was a high-level investigator in Beijing who incurred the wrath of a cabinet minister and that no treatment is too harsh for him. But when a decapitated body is discovered by the laborers, Tan decides that he needs Shan’s investigative skills to prepare a show trial and keep official Beijing from looking closely at his command. When the headless corpse is identified as a Chinese prosecutor, and the prisoners refuse to work until Buddhist rituals are performed to restore spiritual harmony, rising tensions threaten genocidal reprisals. It’s a riveting story, but it’s also a great deal more. Pattison’s narrative is filled with ritual, portents, and even demons, and he somehow imbues the harsh Tibetan gulag with moments of eerie beauty and serenity. It’s a trip.”
–Thomas Gaughan

“Sentenced to penal servitude in Tibet, Shan, a disgraced prosecutor, is assigned instead to complete a pro forma investigation of the gruesome murder of a Chinese official. The party line is that dissident Tibetan monks are to blame, but Shan quickly realizes that the truth lies in other directions. Working with Buddhist rituals, Shan shapes and discards theories to fit a range of facts, emotions, and spiritual beings. Set in the mountainous regions of Lhasa, this first novel is a stark and compelling saga of the conflict between disdainful and violent Chinese and nonviolent Tibetans trying to protect the vestiges of their faith. As in Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, Pattison’s characters venerate traditional beliefs, and mystical insight is a tool for finding murderers. Pattison writes with confident knowledge and spare, graceful prose. With Tibet so much in the news lately, all public libraries will have readers for this book.”
— Barbara Conaty

“Pattison debuts with this superb whodunit that leads an alienated Chinese detective to a cabal of hypocritical bureaucrats, meditating monks, and meddlesome Americans in contemporary Tibet. Serving an indefinite prison term in a Tibetan slave-labor camp for having embarrassed a high-ranking Party minister, former Public Security Investigator Shan Tao Yun is compelled by Colonel Tan, the fastidious Party boss of a remote county, to fabricate a report. The report will explain to Beijing the inexplicable murder of the local prosecutor, whose decapitated corpse was found buried near a road that must be completed before the American tourist season. The Buddhist monks in the camp, though, would rather be tortured or shot than work on a road where the prosecutor’s “hungry ghost” is lurking, especially since they believe the murder was committed by Tamden, a supernatural demon bent on avenging Chinese persecution. Shan knows that failure to appease the Party’s perverse sense of justice would make things only worse for the Tibetan people, whose religious faith he yearns to understand. Like Arkady Renko in Gorky Park, Shan finds that his effort to hide the truth paradoxically leads him to buried secrets within the Party hierarchy itself secrets hidden in ancient Tibetan caves in an American mining project whose naive scientists claim to want only what is best for Tibet. Alternately thwarted and helped by Yeshe, a brainwashed former monk, and by a cynical Chinese prison guard, Shan develops a marvelously complicated vision of an intricate, defiantly fatalistic nation inseparable from the beautifully bleak landscape that has shaped it. He also discovers a surprising dignity and compassion in some of his fellow Chinese, who remain enslaved to the venalities of leaders past and present. Breathlessly suspenseful tour of a dangerous and exotic landscape, where opposing forces, political and magical, give way to an eerie, mystical truth.” —Kirkus Reviews


When a headless corpse is found by a prison work gang on a windy Tibetan mountainside, veteran inspector Shan Tao Yun might seem the perfect man to solve the crime — except that Shan is a prisoner himself for offending the Party in Beijing. Desperate to close the case before an American tourist delegation arrives, the district commander has no choice but to grant a temporary release from prison to the brilliant and embittered Shan, while confronting him with an ultimatum: solve the case fast and in a politically expedient fashion or the Tibetan monks in Shan’s work brigade will be punished. When the early evidence points to an ancient Buddhist demon as the killer and Party officials try to thwart Shan’s investigation by arresting an innocent monk, Shan is thrown into a maelstrom of political and religious intrigue involving American mining interests, Tibetan sorcerers, corrupt Party officials, a secret illegal monastery, and the Tibetan resistance movement.

1. Why has Pattison chosen an exiled Chinese as the main character, and the primary vehicle for explaining the very different world of Tibet? Why do you think he chose not to use a Tibetan as his main character?

2. After he is offered a chance to politically rehabilitate himself, “Shan stared at a dim, vaguely familiar ghost, his reflection in the window. It was happening. He was being reincarnated into a lower lifeform.” What does this passage reveal about Shan’s personality and the way Tibet has transformed his life?

3. As Shan descends into the skull cave shrine in Chapter Eight he undergoes a deep emotional reaction. “They weren’t in the heart of the mountain,” Pattison writes. “They were in the heart of the universe, and the numbing silence that welled around them wasn’t a silence at all, but a soul wrenching hoarseness like the moment before a scream.” How do the physical settings of this book help to heighten its drama?

4. How do The Skull Mantra’s plotlines draw on differences between Chinese, Tibetan, and American cultures? Do those differences explain why each of the central characters approaches the underlying murder in a different way?

5. The lama Choje warns Shan about harboring too much hope. “It still consumes you,” the lama says, “It makes you wrongly believe that you can strike against the world. It distracts you from what is important.” What does Shan mean when he replies “I do not have the strength not to hope”?

6. Pattison provides several perspectives on Colonel Tan, the military commander. After reading the book, how do you see him? As a tyrant? A forgotten, bitter bureaucrat? A symbol of a heartless, intolerant government? A victim of the very persecutions he has carried out? How do Colonel Tan, Sergeant Feng, and Dr. Sung reflect what oppression can do to the oppressors?

7. Pattison has often noted that his books explore the relative nature of justice, that justice, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. How does The Skull Mantra highlight how justice means different things to different people?

8. Yeshe serves as a symbol of the dilemma of the modern Tibetan, trying to live in two worlds. What is the real source of Yeshe’s anguish at the end? Is it because he has by his own actions cut himself from any future life with the monks? Is it because he has let down Shan? Is it because he has lost all sense of his own identity?

9. Pattison’s books evoke widely different reactions to their endings. How did you feel when finishing The Skull Mantra? Uplifted? Depressed? Angry? Despondent? Satisfied that justice has been done?

10. How do you think Tibetans react to this book? Chinese citizens? Chinese officials?

Eliot Pattison

“The best of historical novels allow us to commit our entire spirit to understanding another world that was once our own.”

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