In Eliot Pattison’s masterful and deeply moving new mystery, Skeleton God, a disgraced former inspector must grapple with the horrors of Tibet’s past to uncover a crime decades in the making.
Shan Tao Yun is a former Beijing inspector banished to Yangkar, a remote town in the mountains of Tibet, where fragments of a shattered culture haunt the people left to eke out a living under the gaze of Communist China. But the village’s fragile peace is destroyed when three corpses are discovered in a remote tomb. One of the bodies is a long dead Buddhist saint, but flanking him are a Red Army soldier killed 50 years ago and an American killed only hours before the tomb was discovered.
The story frequently pauses as Shan considers the ramifications of his investigation on himself and his loved ones. He tries to soothe himself by meditating on the stark, unspoiled beauty of the Tibetan mountains or stealing a few moments with his friends. These flashes of peace, written with skillful restraint by Pattison, make Skeleton God a much more contemplative read than its macabre premise would imply.
Every advance in the case rings slightly hollow due to Shan’s belief that he is damning the people of his village to increasing government control and surveillance, and that his own life and his son’s are also at stake. Pattison wrings mounting tension from Shan’s pursuit of the killers simply reminding the reader that at any moment, the characters’ freedom could be ripped away from them.
Skeleton God is a melancholy mystery, an elegy for a lost culture as well as a well-plotted puzzle that manages to be as clever as it is unexpectedly and deeply moving. There is a mystery to be solved of course, the solution of which leads to a tense and inventive final confrontation between Shan and the killers, but Pattison also draws a remarkable psychological portrait of a people living in a post-apocalyptic reality, trying to grasp small measures of resistance and hope from the wreckage.