Eliot Pattison has just published the 7th in his Inspector Shan series, and I'm so pleased that he agreed to write an essay for Mystery Fanfare. I really enjoy his writing, and I'm looking forward to this new Inspector Shan novel, Mandarin Gate.
Eliot Pattison’s award-winning Inspector Shan books have been praised not only for their poignant characters and unorthodox plots but also for their stark, heart-wrenching depiction of life in modern Tibet. Translated into twenty languages, the books have been adapted to radio dramas and become popular on the black market in China. Featuring an exiled and disgraced Chinese investigator who makes a new life among Tibetan lamas after being released from prison, the books cast a long overdue light on an important but oft-neglected part of the world.
Described as "a writer of faraway mysteries," Eliot Pattison's travel and interests span a million miles of global trekking, visiting every continent but Antarctica. An international lawyer by training, he brings his social and cultural concerns to his fiction and has written several books and dozens of articles on legal and business topics, published on three continents. He is the author of the Edgar award-winning Inspector Shan Series, the Bone Rattler series, and Ashes of the Earth, the first novel in a new dystopian series. But his sentiments for Tibet and the Tibetan resistance run deep. His Inspector Shan books have been characterized as a new "campaign thriller" genre for the way they weave significant social and political themes into their plots. Translated into twenty languages, the books have been adapted to radio dramas and become popular on the black market in China. For more info visit: www.eliotpattison.com
Years ago when I tested the waters at publishers with my manuscript for the first Shan novel, The Skull Mantra, the typical reaction was “why would you want to set a mystery in such an unfamiliar place as Tibet?” Many rejected the idea out of hand, saying no one would read possibly read such a novel, especially one with heavy doses of esoteric Buddhism woven into the text. Others suggested moving my characters to Brooklyn or the Chinatown of some major American city. I resisted all the armtwisting to shift away from my Tibetan venue and I would venture to say that after an Edgar and now seven books in international translation those early critics somewhat underestimated the audience.
Even today, though, the most frequent question I get from readers is “Why Tibet?” so let me anticipate the point and explain a little more deeply. Tibet was not some random venue chosen for its dramatic landscape and exotic culture. After a million miles of travel around the planet I had begun to feel that modern Tibet had a vital, important message that was largely overlooked in the West. I was interested in writing a mystery, but I was also deeply interested in conveying that message to a broader audience—eventually I realized that writing a mystery set in Tibet was the way to achieve both goals.
What is that vital message that underlies Mandarin Gate and the other Shan books? The juggernaut of the global economy has diminished cultural identities, religion, and human engagement for all of us. Our world steadily becomes less personal, less spiritual, less contemplative—and in Tibet these effects have been magnified a thousandfold. Many of my Western characters are fleeing in some fashion from that juggernaut, but none are prepared for what they encounter at the roof of the world. There is no better example on the planet of how global economics and geopolitics can crush a traditional non-industrial society, or how a faceless police state saps the humanity out of humans.
The totalitarian government in Beijing may be directly responsible for the day-to-day destruction of Tibet but we all have to answer for it, for it has happened on our watch. So many of us bemoan what happened in another century to the original populations of the Americas without ever considering how the same—and in many ways a worse—process is occurring today in Tibet. The Tibetan people have been punished solely because a more technically advanced people wanted their land, wanted their resources, wanted to increase their leverage on the global stage. We allowed that to happen. We empowered Beijing. We are the cause. We are the effect. As an ancient Greek once said, when a good man is hurt, all who would be good suffer with him. We are all Tibetans. The damage to the Tibetan world is an injury to our entire world.
That is the broad stage on which I chose to write, but of course underlying this theme are also counterpoints of compassion and cruelty, spirituality and material greed. Tibet would be worthy as a setting for its people alone. There is a great joy and harmony among Tibetans that has very little to do with what we in the West tend to link to happiness. They are technologically poor but spiritually rich, intellectually sophisticated but materially impoverished. Year after year they stand up to unthinkable acts of repression. The adversity they face, and the heroes and saints it generates, merit much more attention on the world stage.
These are the people I have chosen to inhabit my books. Mandarin Gate thrusts these characters into the gears of the Chinese machine that is crushing their country, which inevitably takes them into the network of prisons and internment camps that have become the Chinese gulag. There is great suffering in and around Tibetan prisons but there is also great nobility. The heart of traditional Tibet may have been in temples and shrines but the essence of modern Tibet lies in its gulag.
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