Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Exile, Apprentice, Crime Investigator: Duncan McCallum Returns in EYE OF THE RAVEN, by Eliot Pattison

It's the plaint of the child isolated on the playground, the adult alone and ashamed about it: Nobody else is like me. Nobody understands.

For the exile, it can be reality. I think of the first "Lost Boy of the Sudan" taking refuge in snowy Vermont, and the first Nepalese to travel here at the invitation of an American climbing buddy. I think of Chinese exile Shan Tao Yun in Tibet, struggling to protect the remaining lamas in the mountains while accepting abuse for being obvious Chinese -- and a number-tattooed prisoner of the local gulag system, liable to be returned to his cell whenever the occupying powers aren't getting enough satisfaction from watching him squirm.

Inspector Shan's story began with THE SKULL MANTRA, for which Eliot Pattison won an Edgar award. The exiled police investigator has continued to struggle in further books, most recently THE LORD OF DEATH (2009). Pattison, as author of such an anti-occupation series, can no longer visit friends in Tibet; if seen with him, people find themselves arrested.

Two years ago, Pattison started another series, set in pre-Colonial America: BONE RATTLER. Duncan McCallum, last survivor of a Scottish Highlands clan, emerged from English imprisonment via a ship to the colonies. Grief for his lost family and home shadow his life; peril stalks him in the form of a sadistic overlord who claims to own him via indenture; and yet his medical training in Edinburgh drives him to seek answers as if every twist of action in front of him had its roots in a specific failure of the flesh, and a remedy could be sought.

In Pattison's newly released sequel to BONE RATTLER, the year is 1760 -- and the most powerful art within the colonies is that of the surveyor, whose pins and lines mark off wealth for landholders and claimants. Although Duncan McCallum is following, studying with, and attempting to protect his friend Conawago (a shaman caught in the New World equivalent of a clan war), his ignorance of the powers and histories around him make him helpless. Conawago survives threats from another tribal clan, but in an act of mercy toward a dying European, is captured and labeled a killer. McCallum's protests are based in being able to see many "Natives" as wise and honorable people. Unfortunately, many settlers choose not to look that way at the people whose homes they are taking, with violence and craft.

Although Major Latchford would prefer to kill or imprison McCallum with Conawago, the medical skills being offered win the Highlander a limited freedom -- to treat wounded soldiers. McCallum desperately argues for negotiations that maintain "relations" with the tribes, but the major can make better progress by holding to the accusation of murder. Who was the dying man over whom Conawago had stooped near a significant trail?
"The captain? Winston Burke? Commander of the militia? Second son of the greatest landowner in the valley of the Shenandoah. His father is a member of the House of Burgesses. We will have a hanging a get on with the work of war," Latchford declared in a matter-of-fact tone. He aimed the pistol at Duncan and pulled the trigger, sneering as Duncan flinched at the spark of the empty weapon.
Duncan's investigation begins as an effort to free his friend. It soon tangles in ritualistic murders that seem obviously connected to the shamanistic beliefs of the Iroquois natives. Although Duncan has absorbed enough from Conawago to be sure this is a fraudulent pattern, he lacks power and allies. Soon he perceives that it's the treaty status, the land lines, the power network around him that's trembling with threat from the murders. Yet all this is nearly meaningless to the shaman, who might otherwise call together allies in some way. Duncan, last of his kind, wants to lead but can't communicate across the cultural barrier; Conawago, driven by commitment to an obscure quest, declines to take a leadership role. It's the kind of situation where sadists and murderers thrive, in the crevices of lust and desire.

The darkness and despair that enfold McCallum repeatedly turn this tale into a form of pre-Colonial "noir," much as the favorite American Thanksgiving myth is now being turned inside out to reveal the losses and threats that Native Americans suffered from the 1500s onward. Pattison isn't riding a cause here -- no revisionist mantle over his shoulders -- but he paints the dark determined Calvinist spirituality side by side with the Iroqois, so that Duncan recalls word that his grandfather would repeat from the Ninetieth Psalm: "We spend our years as a tale that is told."

Repeatedly, the Highlander terms of survival overlap those of the tribes of the Colonies. At one point, Conawago sends Duncan into the darkness to play on the Highland pipes, ragged though they've become:
Conawago knew well the solitary communion Duncan now needed as he unpacked the bundle wrapped in tattered muslin. With slow, reverent motions he laid the intricately crafted pieces in a pool of moonlight before assembling them. The first test of a reed brought a reply from a whippoorwill. ... "Never mind that we will never see the Highlands again," an exiled countryman had said to him the year before. "Your clan is all those under the boot of the world."
There are deep questions at stake here, and McCallum's detective work will stumble against many of them. Is it right to "save" the Natives through Christianity, or does this simply transplant Hell from the Old World to the New? What is the price of wealth? How can an exile intervene in what the people of power are doing to those who fail to grasp the evil designs forming around them?

Pattison spins and weaves a dense and intricate fabric of imagination, history, loss, grief, loyalty, and survival. McCallum's investigations may yet provide hope for Conawago and for Duncan himself. But what about the others whose lives are being risked without their knowledge?

Examining a rarely portrayed period through magnifying lenses and the language of belief and ritual, Pattison provides a compelling tale worth reading slowly. But the plot is so tight, the characters so emotionally at risk, that it's hard to slow down. I've read it twice now, and I still get carried away in the intensity. Here's a new form of historical mystery -- as irresistible as a thunderstorm.

1 comment:

David said...

A beautiful mystery in 2010.

Happy new year!