Mystery without mysticism
Despite the faraway locale, Americans always seem to pop up in Pattison’s books, and they are a surprisingly welcome presence. Tibetans may have cornered the market on wisdom in these stories, but Pattison’s Americans inject a note of humor. Beautiful Ghosts allows Corbett, a wry American FBI agent, to become almost a partner to Shan, sharing center stage with him for much of the book and providing comic relief. Corbett, who is investigating the theft of Tibetan artwork from a Seattle collector, is unfazed by the Chinese bureaucrats whom Shan, technically still a prisoner, must try not to offend. There is an amusing moment when the Chinese, having strong-armed Shan into helping with their investigation, balk at replacing his tattered pants. “This man is a convict,” one official says. “This man saved my life,” Corbett rejoins. “If you do not give him some clean pants, I’m going to take mine off and give them to him.”
Pattison’s criticism of China’s Communist government remains a central theme throughout the series. Chinese attacks against Tibetan Buddhists and their institutions are often described in detail, as in this passage from Bone Mountain:
They didn’t warn the monks. Just began shelling. Soldiers set up machine guns and shot into the gompa. Like a war, though no one was fighting back. Some of the old buildings had cellars, temple rooms carved into the rocks below them. It took two days before the soldiers decided no one could still be alive in the cellars. . . . That day, when they started shelling, was the last time I saw a monk for years.
We find none of the moral ambiguity that haunted, say, John LeCarré’s George Smiley novels about the Cold War. However justified Pattison’s position, not every fact works well as fiction, and the litany of China’s misdeeds at times overwhelms the narrative. Whatever twists and turns we encounter as Shan works his investigative magic, we never lose sight of whom the author sees as the bad guys. He readily admits to “a deep admiration for the way that modern Tibetans have endured despite unimaginable adversity, and a deep outrage for the way Beijing has wronged them,” and these emotions infuse all four books.
Writing a series poses certain technical hurdles. The author must introduce the same characters from book to book, neither confusing newcomers with too little background nor boring loyal readers with too much. Pattison’s success at weaving so many details about Tibet into The Skull Mantra has created still another challenge: what will he teach us next? In fact, he manages to cram so much information into the myriad plot twists that at times it seems as if he may have taken too many notes in his travels. Water Touching Stone, for example, is set in the northwest hinterlands of modern China, and involves so many distinct ethnic minorities (I counted Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, Uighurs, Tadjiks, and ethnic Russians, in addition to the Tibetans and Han Chinese) that it is hard to keep all the characters straight. Beautiful Ghosts largely avoids this pitfall; at 360 pages, it is the shortest entry in the series, and the length feels just right.
There is a real sense of closure at the end of Beautiful Ghosts, to both the novel itself and the series as a whole. (Pattison is working on a new series, although he hints that we haven’t seen the last of Shan.) After this 1,700-page journey, Shan has become almost more Tibetan than Chinese, his dreams of escape from exile now a distant memory. He readily explains the fine points of Tibetan Buddhism to various Americans and Chinese; China’s experiments with the free market have made Beijing seem almost like foreign territory to him; and he finds Seattle too rainy after so many years in the high desert of the Himalayas. In the end, Shan is at home in Tibet. And by now, so are Pattison’s readers.
Dan Zigmond is a writer, software engineer, and Zen priest living in California.