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Four moon gifSt. Martin’s Minotaur, (Hardcover), ISBN 0312204787
Time passes slowly up here in the mountains, sings Bob Dylan. Especially in the Himalayas that Eliot Pattison evokes so successfully in his murder mystery, The Skull Mantra, winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for first mystery novel. Pattison creates a world of imprisoned Tibetan Buddhist monks, their Chinese captors and a former Chinese official, now a political prisoner for investigating a crime too well. These three groups clash, creating not just a conflict among men, but also between religious eternity and human expediency.

Book: Elliot Pattison, The Skull MantraIn The Skull Mantra the Tibetan religion and mountains touching the sky symbolize eternity. The Tibetan priests, the majority of the political prisoners in the 404th People’s Construction Brigade, embrace this timelessness.

In contrast, the Chinese race against time. They must build a road before an inspection team arrives from the Ministry of Justice and the American tourist season begins. So the 404th digs up rocks and boulders on a mountainside to prepare the way. The Chinese force the prisoners to work each day without let-up. Stop for one moment and a guard beats you with his baton. The Chinese also punish the brigade for failing to meet the daily quota -- for example, two weeks without hot tea, a severe punishment for men living in a cold barracks and eating only gruel.

A corpse scuttles the schedule. In the presence of unnatural death, the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism prevail.

Two monks find the body, immediately kneel and chant a death mantra. All the other monks follow suit. From that day the monks refuse to work on the desecrated ground until they conduct death rites for the corpse, the jungpo -- the hungry ghost, a soul released by a violent action, unprepared for death.

Colonel Tan, the governing Chinese officer, demands a quick solution and capture of the killer. His own prosecutor gone on a month-long vacation, Colonel Tan chooses one of the few Chinese in the 404th, Shan Tao Yun, to investigate.

Once the Inspector General of the Ministry of Economy in Beijing, Shan fell from grace for refusing to join the Chinese Communist Party and reporting a major fraud case involving high government officials. The government banished him to the 404th. Now he lives in between cultures -- Chinese and Tibetan.

Shan refuses to investigate, but Colonel Tan leaves him no choice. The prisoners face severe punishment for striking. Shan accepts the assignment to save the monks. Then the stakes increase. In their rush to justice the Chinese find a scapegoat -- a Tibetan monk on pilgrimage who passed through the crime scene. The monk faces the death penalty and Shan must save him.

The Skull Mantra’s deliberate pace may at first frustrate a mystery lover used to rapid-fire writing and action. But keep reading! Soon this steady, tranquil style casts its spell upon the reader. The eternal permeates the book, providing Shan with the world view necessary to solve the crime and discover his own sense of eternity.

Lynn I. Miller

Readers Respond

What an excellent first novel! I am a fussy, eclectic, reader. I read Hiasson, Tim Robbins, David Sidaris, Corson Hirschfeld and the like. Believe me, this author kept my attention! I am very enthusiastic about him and hope he can come up with something as spell-binding as this effort again; although, I don't see how that's possible! Why was it only $4.98 in Barnes/Noble?

Terry York

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