Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison: A review

Beautiful Ghosts (Inspector Shan, #4)Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By now the pattern of the plots of these Inspector Shan mysteries is well established. We've got the official from Beijing who is corrupt and criminal, who will stop at nothing to achieve his aims. We've got the Chinese official who is the good socialist, who initially appears to be an enemy of Inspector Shan, but in the end proves to be an honest ally. We have the misguided American who during the course of the book is converted to the wisdom and peace of Buddhism. And, of course, we have Shan, the former inspector from Beijing who lost everything when he ran afoul of a powerful figure in the Chinese government and was sent to a work camp in Tibet, which proved to be his spiritual salvation. And we have Tan, who in my opinion is one of the most interesting characters in these books. He was the official in charge of the work camp that Shan was assigned to and it was he who authorized Shan's unofficial release after the prisoner helped him solve a mystery at the camp.

Moreover, in this book, we have a repetition of the action of the previous novels, in that Shan and his two Buddhist teachers Gendun and Lokesh accompany an expedition on a turgid progression through caves and tunnels in the mountains of Tibet. Those caves and tunnels are filled with the most preposterously elaborate Buddhist temples and treasures that are guarded by secret groups of the faithful who manage to keep Buddhism alive in the face of the strong opposition of the Chinese government. These travels continue endlessly (almost literally, it seems) and nothing much ever happens except that "old Tibetans" frequently and "suddenly" (always suddenly) give small "cries of delight" or "groans of despair" and knowing glances are passed routinely among those in the know. If I had a dollar for every time an old Tibetan or an old lama suddenly emits cries or groans in this book, I could probably go to dinner and a movie. Really, the whole thing gets extremely tedious after a while.

The first half of the book seemed utterly muddled and confusing to me, but it improved in the second half once the mystery part of the novel actually got under way. The writing seemed at least marginally sharper and better plotted.

The mystery begins at the ancient ruins of the Zhoka monastery where hill people have gathered for a celebration of the Dalai Lama's birthday. Local herders bring in a body of one of their own and claim that he was murdered by "godkillers." Then Surya, a monk who is a talented artist and an old friend of Gendun's, appears, covered in blood and announces that he has killed a man and that, therefore, he is "No more a monk. No more a human."

Confusion reigns and the ensuing investigation brings Shan's old nemesis - and savior - Colonel Tan into the picture. Before they reach the resolution of the mystery, more murders will be revealed and will occur, one of them in far away Seattle. And the source of all this evil will be revealed to be greed for the possession of art and the theft of the unique art from some of those aforementioned decorated caves. Shan finds himself teamed with an FBI agent named Corbett in trying to solve the crimes and bring a little justice to both their worlds.

One other spanner thrown into the works here is the introduction of Shan's son, Ko, whom he had not seen since he was a small child. He is now a young man of nineteen and a criminal, sent to work coal mines in Tibet. Shan is promised an opportunity to meet him if he will aid the investigation, but when he does meet him, he seems to be a cruel sociopath with no redeeming qualities. More pain for a father who has already borne so much pain.

In the end, things are, if not totally resolved, at least moved forward and, yes, a kind of rough justice is achieved. The ending between Shan and his son is actually quite moving.

The character of Shan is a sympathetic one and Colonel Tan is intriguing, and so I do find myself caring, almost against my will, about what happens in these books. In the past, I have given the author a pass on the confusion of his plots, putting it down to my unfamiliarity with the philosophy of Buddhism, but that pass has expired. I read books all the time about cultures I'm not familiar with and have no problem understanding them, when they are clearly written. Obfuscation rather than enlightenment, though, seems to be the aim of Pattison in this series and that is annoying. The other possibility is that he's just not a very good writer.




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