Pennsylvania attorney Eliot Pattison has spent much of his career advising foreign governments, and his travels added up to more than a million miles before he stopped counting a couple decades ago. In the 1980s, a trip took him to Beijing, where a random incident set him on a path to a literary career.
While in China, he visited the famous Lama Temple, also known as the Yonghe Temple. "I walked into a chapel with four Tibetan Buddhist monks meditating at the altar with incense burning," he recalls. "There were about four Chinese people worshipping and six to seven policemen. About three minutes after I sat down, the police started pushing the monks out of the room with their batons. As I realized they were all looking at me, one of the monks secretly dropped a cone of incense" – right in front of Pattison.
According to him, the monks use incense to honor their traditions and attract the attention of the gods. "There was a reason that he gave that to me," he says. "He was saying, 'Help us get the attention of the gods.'"
Years later, in 1999, he found a way to help the monk's faith by setting The Skull Mantra, his first mystery novel in Chinese-occupied Tibet. It won a prestigious Edgar first-novel award from the Mystery Writers of America and spawned eight more novels featuring Inspector Shan, a Chinese man banished to remote Tibet.
In the new Skeleton God, the latest book in the well-reviewed series, the inspector battles his bosses when the centuries-old burial site of a gilded Buddhist saint turns out to contain the bodies of a modern American visitor and 1960s-era Chinese soldier.
In an interview with the Monitor, Pattison talks the themes of the series and his hope for Tibet's future.
Q: What about modern Tibet made you want to write about it through fiction?
I was just appalled at the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese government and what's happened ever since then: the deaths of a million Tibetans and the systemic dismantling of Tibetan culture. It was the most unwarlike culture on earth, one that was totally focused on spiritual things and had never embraced technology and economic progress as goals.
Q: Why write mysteries about Tibet?
I'm not driven to write about murders. I'm driven to write about causes and teach my readers something. With these characters and this setting, I can use these books to look at the broader picture.
Q: Has your depiction of the Chinese evolved since you wrote the first book in the series 18 years ago?
It's evolved, but in terms of Tibet it hasn't gotten better. It's gotten worse.
The Chinese are bent on destroying the Tibetan Buddhist religion, the only force that ties them together. They won't let the Dalai Lama come back, and if you have his photo in your house you can go to jail.
The Chinese are now moving tens of thousands of Tibetans out of the high plain areas where they've lived in nomadic camps. They've been shipped to indoctrination camps and then factories in China.
People have a sense that I exaggerate what goes on there. They ask 'How can it be so bad?' But things like torture and spies in temples are all based on facts.
Q: Your main character is a banished Chinese law enforcement official who's distrusted by the Tibetans he's trying to help. Why did you choose to make him Chinese?
He's still learning about Tibet, so readers learn about Tibet through his eyes. And he expresses my theme of the toll of oppression on the oppressor.
He's a very pure-thinking, honest kind of guy. When he found evidence of corruption at a high level, he was sent to prison. In Tibet, he has a deep affinity for the Tibetans, but no one is helping them.
Q. Is this a wider theme in your books?
I've seen a lot of the world. I think oppression slowly extinguishes the spark of humanity in the oppressors, but it doesn't entirely go away. Even among the worst oppressors, almost of them have a glimmer of conscience.
Q. What you hope readers gain from this series?
Ultimately, I really want to get people to stop and think about human rights and what the world is doing to cultures like Tibet. It's a shadow on the conscience of the West, of fair-minded and just people around the world. Tibet was abandoned by the world because it wasn't important in any political sense, but it should be important for all the other reasons.
Q: Are you hopeful about Tibet's future?
There's a scenario where Tibet is given more autonomy like Hong Kong. The Dalai Lama has asked for that.
All I want is to let the Tibetan people govern themselves, and there could be scenarios in coming years where that happens. Tibet has a lot of viability and critical mass.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is immediate past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.