MANDARIN GATE by Eliot PATTISON (a review)

Excerpt from Chapter 1, pages 11-12

For the moment it did not matter that there were brigades of Chinese police seeking to ferret out men like Lokesh and Jamyang, two of the gentlest, kindest humans he had ever known. It did not matter that bonecatchers roamed the hills, that outsiders were settling in the valley, pushing out Tibetan families who had been rooted there for centuries. He could forget for now the nightmares of death that increasingly disturbed his sleep. He would not even let thoughts of his son, locked in a gulag camp thirty miles away, cloud the day. Shan had been learning from his friends to accept that what mattered was the here and now, the experience of this moment. And this moment (…) was perfect.

As if reading Shan’s mind, Jamyang looked up from his meditation. ‘’The gods are content enough,’’the lama declared with a serene smile. He reached through the fragrant smoke and squeezed Shan’s hand. ‘’I take strength from you being here now,” Jamyang whispered, and wrapped his rosary around his fingers.

Then the lama picked up the pistol and shot himself in the head.

This suicide, followed by the gruesome murders of three seemingly unrelated people --a Tibetan nun, and two unidentified men-- on the grounds of an old convent in Tibet, will send Shan on a dangerous quest for the truth and for justice. But how do you achieve this in a country run by the Chinese government’s police and where monks are considered outlaws, where natives can be imprisoned for no particular reason, and where the only hope of survival is by blending in and letting yourself be indoctrinated.

Eliot Pattison’s novels featuring Shan Tao Yun started in 1999 with The Skull Mantra, which became a winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. In that book, Shan was a veteran police inspector who had been deported to Tibet for getting in the way of a highly influential man in the Beijing government. In Mandarin Gate, the 7th book in the series, Shan is now an inspector of irrigation and sewer ditches in a small Tibetan township, unofficially released from prison for having saved a Colonel from a false accusation of murder (see The Lord of Death, 2009).

Shan’s son Ko is in a prison for the criminally insane where inmates are malnourished and treated like cattle, if not worse. With every step he takes, each and every day, Shan is at risk of worsening his son’s situation; one false move or one wrong word from Shan and Ko could be transferred further away in an even worse prison.  Every month, Shan is allowed to send a letter to Ko and to visit him once. He can’t afford to lose these two privileges. But to avoid reprisal on his Tibetan friends for the recent murders, he will readily put himself at risk.

In the course of his investigation, he will get help from unexpected places, even trusting people he would never have wanted near him before: the Jade Crows’s gang leader, Lung, whose brother and nephew were both recently killed; and also Meng, a Chinese female officer who is at a crossroads in her life.  

The Shan series of novels is built upon complex plots that involve more than just murder mysteries; like the Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags inscribed with invocations, mantras, and symbols, Pattison’s stories carry Tibet’s traditions and beliefs not only with respect, but also with a richness in details. He shows both the physical and psychological aspects of the painful history, just as the prayer flags are used to balance the present lives both externally and internally.

Mandarin Gate is a compelling novel that involves more interesting and complex characters than many writers will create in ten books. It is a story that will transport you in the Tibetan mountains and villages for a journey into the heart, mind and spirit of its people.  This is a book well-deserving of showing up on the end-of-year best novels lists.
December 30th, 2012
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