The Skull Mantra
Shan is an inmate at the 404th, a Chinese prison camp in Tibet. The 404th is out of the mainstream. It is for Tibetan prisoners, often devout Buddhists who won't convert to the Chinese system, or the occasional political prisoner like Shan. Five years earlier he had been a detective in Beijing. But he got involved in a task that was sensitive. When he told the truth, he ended up being arrested, stripped of his citizenship, tattooed with a prisoner's mark, and stranded in the 404th.
Now he has learned and become a Buddhist. He covertly studies with the imprisoned monks. He is learning the traditions, the rituals, the gods, and the demons. He is no longer the man he was in Beijing. Now he is Shan, a seeker of Buddha's truth.
While the prisoners are out working on a new road being built, they find a body. The person had died recently; the body has little decay. It also is missing the head. Major Tan, the warden of the 404th, wants an investigation done. But rather than going through regular channels, which he suspects, he pulls Shan out of the communal cell and puts him to work. Tan knew Shan's previous life. He wants those skills brought to bear in the investigation of this death. He wants a solution before the American tourist season begins in a few weeks.
A ritual cave is quickly discovered. It is full of gold plated skulls reverently preserved with information of each person's life. In amidst the skulls is the missing head. The dead person is Prosecutor Jao who was supposed to be away on vacation. By the time the investigation overtakes all his thoughts and energies, Shan discovers both his Chinese background and Buddhist training will be needed to discover the truths of the happenings around the 404th and in this area of Tibet.
This is a detective mystery in the true form. The action rarely gets violent in the book. Instead it follows Shan as he discovers the clues and finally puts them together. The book has a quiet, thoughtful tone, although not peaceful. The mystery is one that twists around itself, and the reader doesn't realize what clues may be important. This book is also a basic study of Buddhism. Shan is a man from both cultures now, and both are important to the story. There are times in the book when I couldn't have realized the importance of an action or clue without the religious explanation.
If you like thoughtful mysteries, you'll like this book. If you're looking for action and suspense, you, like my daughter, probably won't finish it.
These reviews are personal opinions only and in no way reflect other readers' opinions of the books discussed.
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