Review: After a hermit monk kills himself with a gunshot to the head, exiled government official Shan Tao Yun cannot help but be both puzzled and dismayed. He reflects on the actions the monk had taken just prior to his suicide, following what must have been the path of his final journey, and discovers an even more puzzling scene: the bodies of three people in a Tibetan convent under restoration, two men and a woman, posed in an odd recreation of the Chinese flag. Determined to understand how the two events are linked, as he is sure they must be, Shan risks everything that is dear to him in Mandarin Gate, the seventh mystery in this series by Eliot Pattison.
The Chinese officials investigating the murder scene do not, at first, even acknowledge that a crime has been committed. Standard protocol is to have a solution in hand before admitting a problem exists. And no obvious solution is at hand, though it would be convenient to blame it on a Tibetan separatist, if one can be credibly identified. Complications arise when two of the three bodies are subsequently stolen; the third, for other reasons, has been destined to become the result of an unfortunate accidental fall from a mountainside. But still, two unaccounted for bodies, one of which turns out to be an American, is something that cannot easily be explained away. Especially when there is a witness to the proceedings, who has gone into hiding. None of this helps Shan, however, who believes that monk he came to know as a friend may be framed as the culprit, while the real killer remains at large, one who may kill again.
Like the other books in this series, the Tibetan setting provides a vivid and frequently mesmerizing backdrop to the storyline. The murder mystery itself is elegantly crafted, one that represents a true enigma for Shan. And while the political situation in Tibet is always an underlying theme to these mysteries, in the present book it comes across as more than a little heavy-handed, nearly overwhelming Shan's search for the truth. Another element doesn't seem to quite work here is Shan's romantic involvement with a police official who, more than a few times, seems to magically appear whenever he's in a jam and needs help getting out of it. Much of the appeal of Shan's character rests in his historical personal conflicts, and while a relationship with the enemy, as it were, may seem to be a natural extension of his character, it is, at best, awkwardly handled here. One can only imagine what Shan's mentor and friend, Lokesh, must think of it. (It's never mentioned in his presence … and Shan is probably wise not to bring the subject up.)
With such memorable characters, an often lyrical narrative style, and a truly intriguing murder mystery plot at its core, Mandarin Gate is hard to fault. Still, a more nuanced approach to storytelling, with greater focus on Shan's intuitive deductive process and less emphasis on China's abuse of the Tibetan land and its people, would have elevated this already fine mystery into the top tier of crime novels to be published this year.
Acknowledgment: Minotaur Books provided a copy of Mandarin Gate for this review.
Review Copyright © 2013 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
Ashes of the Earth
Counterpoint (Hardcover), April 2011
ISBN-13: 9781582436449; ISBN-10: 1582436444
Location(s) referenced in Mandarin Gate: Tibet
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Mandarin Gate by Eliot Pattison — A Shan Tao Yun Mystery
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: November 2012
List Price: $25.99