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The Skull Mantra (Inspector Shan, #1)
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The Skull Mantra (Inspector Shan #1)

really liked it 4.0  ·  Rating Details ·  2,539 Ratings  ·  345 Reviews
The corpse is missing its head and is dressed in American clothes. Found by a Tibetan prison work gang on a windy cliff, the grisly remains clearly belong to someone too important for Chinese authorities to bury and forget. So the case is handed to veteran police inspector Shan Tao Yun. Methodical, clever Shan is the best man for the job, but he too is a prisoner, deported ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published September 30th 2008 by Minotaur Books (first published 1999)
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Jamie Weis I loved this too. Check out Colin Cotterill's books - detective novels set in Laos and also Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber.
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Community Reviews

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Tim The Enchanter
A Great First Effort - 3.5 Stars

The Skull Mantra was the Winner of the 2000 Edgar Award for best New Author. I cannot take issue with the choice as it an expertly written first effort. Had some of the content been presented in a manner that recognized the reader may be unaware of the concepts dealt with, my rating would have been higher.

Plot Outline

Shan Tao Yun was an investigator in Beijing but when he ran afoul of his superiors, he found himself sentenced to a work camp in Tibet. His fel
Barb Middleton
Mar 31, 2013 Barb Middleton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: michelle ward
Shelves: mystery, adult
What a mystery masterpiece! I would recommend keeping notes on the different Tibetan sects such as ragyapa's, purbas, and so on; plus, the complex Tibetan Buddhism theological elements that define culture and make people act the way they do. I got so caught up in the mystery that I quit taking notes and then forgot which sect was responsible for what and had to backtrack to refresh my brain. Of course, you readers who don't forget details (I hate you) won't need any notes. That said, this is one ...more
Sep 21, 2009 Carl rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm being generous in giving this 3 stars. In a way, it reminded me of a Tony Hillerman book: a body found in mysterious circumstances, which can only be explained by delving into the native culture/religion, which is at odds with the modern, conquering culture, so someone must bridge that gap to understand, thus find, the killer(s). Add a remote, beautiful, exotic location, an intricate plot, and you may have a great book.

The main problem with this book was the overly intricate and dense plot,
Apr 29, 2009 Monica rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Interesting to read the mixed reviews about this book, which I freaking LOVED and blew through in three nights.
The Tibetan setting is fascinating and beautifully rendered, and I learned an enormous amount about the Buddist religion. I also liked that while the Chinese regime is depicted as horrifically brutal as most oppressive regimes are, Pattison has still created sympathetic, human Chinese characters and resisted the easy temptation to reduce the Tibetan vs. Chinese stuggle into a cartoonis
Sep 19, 2016 Skip rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: award-winners
Shan is a political prisoner in a work camp, when a dead body is discovered. The local political boss decides to have Shan investigate, given his background. He is assigned a Tibetan prisoner to help, and a Chinese guard to watch them. The plot is thick and quite meandering, but Shan is determined and keeps investigating, eventually uncovering the culprit and the motive. Ambitious effort, with a healthy dose of anti-communist/pro-Buddhist philosophy. I was bored at times, and doubt I will read t ...more
Kristena West
Apr 19, 2012 Kristena West rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have read every single book- in this series. I am giving it five stars as the author has done a bold deed in revealing ancient secret Tibetan esoteric information imbedded in the storyline.
" An international lawyer by training, early in his career Pattison began writing on legal and business topics, producing several books and dozens of articles published on three continents. In the late 1990's he decided to combine his deep concerns for the people of Tibet with his interest in venturing into
Apr 23, 2008 Bettie☯ rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mystery-thriller
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 11, 2012 Margie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Margie by: Margery
I didn't dislike this, and he certainly writes well in describing Tibet, but I had trouble with it. I wasn't able to pick up on any of the clues, many of which were in the form of koans. The bits of the puzzle were like drops of water; shapeless, without defined edges, and completely transparent. Together they formed something rather amorphous. Isn't part of the reason we read mysteries the joy of putting the puzzle pieces together?
The book made me feel stupid, which is never a good thing. I'm
Apr 14, 2013 J rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

How can one book be so bleak and so uplifting?

I've not studied Tibet, so I don't independently know whether Pattison got the land and culture right (except for broad political outlines in recent Tibetan history, which I am familiar with.)

But it sure seems as though the author spent years absorbing the environment.

The hero, Shan -- an independent-thinking political prisoner who's ethnic Chinese -- is plucked from his Tibetan work camp to use
Dec 21, 2009 Bruce rated it really liked it
This mystery is intriguing and well written. However, more intriguing to me is its cultural and political description and commentary, occurring in Tibet and portraying the tensions between the Chinese rulers and the Tibetan people. The monastic and Buddhist culture is fascinating, and their intimate place in daily life is illuminating. The protagonist, Shan, is a Chinese man on a largely Tibetan work gang in the gulag, sentenced to an indefinite number of years on trumped up charges when his inv ...more
Mar 19, 2015 Ed rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Mystery fans and those wanting to learn something about Tibet.
If you are looking for a straightforward mystery, you will not like this book. It has a great number of twists and turns leaving the reader sometimes confused about who the criminals are.

Shan, a political prisoner, in work group 404 is brought before the Provincial Governor, Colonel Tan, and assigned the task of finding out who beheaded Prosecutor Jao on the road Group 404 was building. Before being sent to the work camp, Shan had been a crack investigator in Beijing. He made some poor politica
Sep 27, 2009 HBalikov rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A first class mystery! A Chinese political prisoner, now on a road gang in Tibet finds himself forced to investigate a beheading when the corpse turns up on the construction site. I learned a lot about Tibet history and its people, and almost as much about Buddhism. Pattison does this while not breaking the plot. He has a great sense of characterization and, at the end, you don't doubt that things happened in the way they did. One question remains: How soon do I pick up another of his books?

Nov 23, 2008 PaulaB rated it really liked it
I knew it was good from the get go, not simple, not easy, but a very well built story, full of details, making it difficult for you but still grabbing your attention every step of the way. And it is indeed a very good crime story.
What I especially liked though, were the details of the characters' names. It's a very cunning way to keep you sharp while you read, and also to state the difference between the Chinese and the Tibetan - it's very hard to keep track and if you don't pay attention you w
Jul 30, 2012 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Outstanding mystery with great character development, a satisfying mystery, and a great window into the struggle of the Tibetan people against cultural annihilation by the Chinese. In this first of the series, a former criminal investigator from Beijing, Shan, is residing as a political prisoner in a work camp in Tibet along with near 200 Buddhist monks and local dissidents. A murder of the local Chinese prosecutor by beheading leads the county bureaucrat, Colonel Tan, to engage Shan to find a s ...more
S.H. Villa
Feb 22, 2014 S.H. Villa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A couple of months ago I had a cold and was searching the shelves for something that would take my mind off the discomfort, something fast moving and entertaining. Gorky Park, yes, years since I read it, only the vaguest memory of the plot, with Martin Cruz Smith’s smooth and humorous style. It was falling apart, so I read it in pieces, and then that was so good, I read Polar Star, Red Square, Wolves Eat Dogs and Stalin’s Ghost again. Smith writes extremely well, especially his first book Gorky ...more
Mar 25, 2017 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: tibet
Shockingly engaging, a very telling mystery about life in post-invasion Tibet, and the reality of Communism, bureaucracy, and the life of the locals, both Chinese and Tibetan.

I really love how this book isn't a heavy-handed metaphor for the problems (i.e. the immorality) of Chinese rule over a foreign land. Rather, it's subtle, it's nuanced, and the novels villain (without giving it away) is misguided in their failure to understand the situation on the other side of the world.

A deeply spiritua
Mar 31, 2011 Sophie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I usually try to make sure to read series in the correct order, but because of ~various circumstances~ I didn't do that in the case of this series and I ended up reading the first book after having read the second and the third.

It's been a while since I've loved a series of books as much as I love these, so please don't expect an objective review here.

What was interesting for me to see was that in comparison to the second and the third book, the first one resembles much more a traditional crim
3.5 Stars The main character, Shan Tao Yung, a former inspector, has been in a gulag in Tibet for the past 3 years working on road building in the mountains. Shan is the lone Chinese prisoner amongst the Tibetans because while investigating a crime, he forgot temporarily about the primary rule of not offending the Beijing Communist party. But even though Shan is at first viewed with suspicion by the Buddhist prisoners, through being taken under the wings of the Religious leader in the prison an ...more
Joyce Lagow
Feb 13, 2010 Joyce Lagow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
1st in the Inspector Shan Tao Yun series, set in contemporary Tibet.[return][return]Shan, a former inspector in the Ministry of Justice in Beijing, is now a prisoner in a hard labor brigade in Tibet, having suddenly fallen out of favor with the Minster. He is the only Chinese in a work gang of Tibetan Buddhist monks. After 4 years with the monks, learning from them as they continue to teach and practice their religion, Shan himself is more Tibetan than Chinese.[return][return]But after the disco ...more
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
I had hoped to enjoy this book rather more than I did. It started out engaging and interesting, but then less than halfway through it became convoluted, diffuse and confusing. Part of that may be that I'm spoiled by the books of writers like Qiu Xiaolong--people who actually grew up in China/Asia/the culture they're writing about, and can translate that (literally) into the English mystery novel medium. Another part may be that this is a first novel, and if Pattison already envisioned a series ( ...more
THE SKULL MANTRA. (1999). Eliot Pattison. ***.
A friend recommended Pattison’s books for a good read. When I learned that he had written several books so far, I thought it a good idea to start with the first book in the series: This one. It introduces the author’s series protagonist, Shan Tao Yun. As the story opens, we learn that Shan is now a prisoner in a Chinese gulag situated in Tibet. He is there serving a sentence for displeasing the powers that be in Beijing while he was doing his job – i
Dec 31, 2012 Justin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This mystery novel is the first in the Inspector Shan Tao Yun series, set in Tibet. This novel was awarded the Edgar Allen Poe (Edgar) Award by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), and with good reason. The short version of my review is: The MWA obviously loved it, and so will you!

Inspector Shan is a sympathetic character, a former Beijing Fraud Inspector consigned to a Tibetan work camp for being just a little too efficient. Although not nominally Buddhist (his father was a secret Taoist), Sha
May 29, 2014 Melaslithos rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mystery, china
Ce roman m’a surpris, touché, interpellé. En effet, derrière une intrigue policière complexe et bien menée, ce roman est aussi l’occasion de découvrir tout un pan du Tibet qu’il est difficile pour nous de vraiment saisir. Ainsi, par exemple, je ne pensais pas qu’il existait encore aujourd’hui des camps de travaux forcés tels que décrits dans le livre (réaction de ma mère, chinoise, lorsque je lui en ai parlé : “mais ça fait longtemps que ça n’existe plus !), mais je crains que cela ne fasse part ...more
Apr 28, 2009 Annabelle rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. It has such a unique and creative setting and conceit, a Chinese Detective who was a good party member but a bit too honest, is sent to the Gulag in Tibet, and is transformed by the Tibetan Buddhist priest he is imprisoned with. He becomes transformed and bonded to their struggle, trying to keep the Chinese military from abusing them more. He vividly depicts the landscape, the Buddhist subculture, beliefs, practices, and the unremitting genocidal practices of the Chinese. He a ...more
Aug 14, 2013 Audrey rated it it was amazing
Shelves: series-1st, buddhism
This is the first in a series and I found it to be a very interesting book.

It takes place in Tibet and the main character, Shan, is actually a prisoner working on a bridge building detail, before he was imprisoned for political reasons, he had been an investigator, when some of the workers discover a headless body, Shan is told by his Warden that he is to work with the infamous Col. Tan to find out the identity of the corpse as well as who is the murderer.

This proves to be a very difficult task
May 18, 2011 Jacqie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really did love this book. The reason for four stars instead of five is that I had some difficulty with patching together the engrossing scenes to make sense of the whole plot. This is probably user error on my part- the book is rich and densely written and I think I tried to read it too quickly. The author uses a mystery framework to explore the situation between Tibet and China, Chinese politics, and China's relationship with Western business. There is so much in here. Shan is a wonderful ch ...more
Hearing Nancy Pearl on NPR this morning reminded me that I had read this gripping mystery a few years back, and I highly recommend it.

Summary: The corpse is missing its head and is dressed in American clothes. Found by a Tibetan prison work gang on a windy cliff, the grisly remains clearly belong to someone too important for Chinese authorities to bury and forget. So the case is handed to veteran police inspector Shan Tao Yun. Methodical, clever Shan is the best man for the job, but he too is a
Jan 28, 2015 Superquest rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a murder and an investigation, but this book is much more than a mystery. It's an adventure with a mismatched band of pilgrims in a hidden part of the world. It's a glimpse of the struggle of Tibetan monks for survival under China's brutal repression. And it highlights the life-altering decisions that many people (Chinese and Tibetan) must make when confronted with the truth about what is going on around them.

I know Pattison has written more books about Shan, his investigator in this bo
This is a Nancy Pearl pick. I learned a lot about Tibet and the relationship between the Tibetans and the Chinese but for a murder mystery, it was very complex and challenging to keep everything straight. Maybe a little too much detail. But it was certainly interesting. One hopes when one reads such a book that the background information is accurate so you can at least feel that you learned something.
Jan 21, 2012 Mona rated it it was ok
I did enjoy reading a book set in Tibet, but with all the foreign names and religious terms, etc, I felt that a glossary of these foreign terms would have been helpful. Also a cast of characters would have been appreciated. The story moved very slowly and people just came and went throughout the book.
The ending was typical and not much of a surprise. All in all, just ok.
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Edgar Award winning Eliot Pattison has been described as a "writer of faraway mysteries," a label which is particularly apt for someone whose travel and interests span a million miles of global trekking, visiting every continent but Antarctica.

An international lawyer by training, Pattison first combined his deep concerns for the people of Tibet with his interest in fiction writing in The Skull Ma
More about Eliot Pattison...

Other Books in the Series

Inspector Shan (9 books)
  • Water Touching Stone (Inspector Shan, #2)
  • Bone Mountain (Inspector Shan, #3)
  • Beautiful Ghosts (Inspector Shan, #4)
  • Prayer of the Dragon (Inspector Shan, #5)
  • The Lord of Death (Inspector Shan, #6)
  • Mandarin Gate (Inspector Shan, #7)
  • Soul of the Fire (Inspector Shan, #8)
  • Skeleton God (Inspector Shan, #9)

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“Investigations, meditations, careers, relationships were much the same, he mused. They failed because no one thought to ask the right question.” 5 likes
“our life is the instrument we use to experiment with the truth.” 3 likes
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