Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Behind the Inspector Shan Novels of Eliot Pattison

When author Eliot Pattison arrived here at Kingdom Books on Sunday evening, he had a quiet glow of satisfaction that he soon explained -- Thursday evening he'd completed his new (sixth) Inspector Shan novel, of which he'll only hint that one theme involved is climbing Mt. Everest.

That's an exciting bit to hold onto. Pattison's first novel in this series was SKULL MANTRA, for which he won a well-served Edgar Award. He describes each of his books as having such a focus: for BEAUTIFUL GHOSTS it's art thefts, for WATER TOUCHING STONE it's reincarnations, for BONE MOUNTAIN it's exploitation of minerals, and for his most recent published one, PRAYER OF THE DRAGON, it's parallels with American Indian culture. While here, he read from the section where Shan begins to get acquainted with a Navaho whose unlikely arrival in Chinese-occupied Tibet has confused all the factions circling around Shan.

"I always had a great interest in Eastern religions," Pattison explained, as he told the story of how he began the series. He studied those religions at Bloomington University, where he was especially drawn toward Tibetan Buddhism (which he doesn't practice -- he has a mixed American Christian background). "In a lot of ways it's not a religion, it's a phenomenon," he mused. After a few years of exloring and "drifting," Pattison entered law school; his legal career turned out to be a springboard into international travel. Soon he was visiting China, including "the lands of traditional Tibet." He began to seek out Tibetan temples, which were all over China at the time (the 1980s), a residue of the days when Chinese emperors respected the Tibetans and had lamas as members of their courts.

Touring today's China and Chinese-occupied Tibet, Pattison became increasingly disturbed at what was happening there. He'd always been a writer -- of book reviews, and of two legal books -- and had always wanted to write a mystery. One day he realized he could combine that desire with his longing to talk about what the Chinese were doing in Tibet. He emphasized that he's never exaggerated any of what the Chinese are doing -- and now that he's written so much about it, he can't go back to visit Tibetans, as his very presence would mean they'd be imprisoned by the occupying force.

The Tibetan situation, he said, "is something we could fix if we really want to. We can do something about it if the governments would wake up!" He added, "What the Chinese have done is one of the great crimes of civilization -- period."

At the end of 2007, Pattison's second series, set in Colonial American and reaching into Native American spirituality as well as his usual crime solving, was published and shocked the readers of his Shan series by how different it is. And yet this ardent student of 18th-century America points out, "If you've read BONE RATTLER, there are an awful lot of the same themes." Its protagonist, like Shan's Tibetan friends, is an exile from a traditional society -- the Gaelic Scots -- whose home has been destroyed by an occupying force (the English). "I have a lot of Scottish blood," Pattison explained, "and believe me, there's an awful lot of spirituality woven into the Scots. ... Broadly, there's this theme [in BONE RATTLER] of natural justice, and people ignored by governments, having to make up their own culture."

A fairly private person, Pattison gave few other details of his own life, other than that he lives in Pennsylvania with his family, but feels at home here in Waterford, Vermont, because it happens to be where he married his wife! He did, however, share some of his own favorite reads: Martin Cruz Smith (especially GORKY PARK), John Le Carré, and a lot of historic fiction, especially Dorothy Dunnett.

Dave and I feel very much honored by the visit from Eliot Pattison; we had a shop full of readers who expressed much the same. Check in again next year -- maybe the Pattison travels will again lead through the Green Mountains of Vermont.

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