Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Armies, Power, Murder, Manipulation: Eliot Pattison's New Bone Rattler Mystery, ORIGINAL DEATH

Is it true, as Lord Acton wrote in 1887, that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"? If so, the many forces entering battle in Colonial America must have hosted a lot of corruption -- because each of them struggled wildly to seize power in the New World. The French, the British, the newly developed Colonists ... But what about the Native Americans?

In author Eliot Pattison's hands, the tribal forces of 1760 may demand an exception to the rule. Knowledgeable about their land and its seasons and weather, wise in the movements of animals and growth of plants around them, and carefully balanced against each other's tribes -- or clans, as Scottish exile Duncan McCallum sees them -- the tribes of the Iroquois federation want power over themselves. But not over the Europeans. Without that hunger for absolute power, they'll avoid the depths of corruption already sweeping through the military forces around them.

At least, it seems that way to Duncan, traveling north toward a village by Lake Champlain with his aging but gentle and wise friend Conawago, who may be the last of the Nipmucs. That's how others know this sage. Yet Duncan knows the contents of the letter Conawago has, the one that's pulling him north. It says there are two other Nipmucs alive, in a settlement of Christian Indians.

Heartbreak! The pair of travelers arrive to find a murdered settlement -- including Conawago's nephew -- and increasing evidence that robbery and more murder have spread among the Scottish forces working for the British. Duncan even discovers a roped and drowned clansman under the lake's waters: "Duncan could not bring himself to touch the body, but he gripped the wheel to study it wuth the more deliberate gaze of the doctor he had trained to be. ... The death had a slow, organized aspect to it."

This is the frame Pattison has used in Bone Rattler and Eye of the Raven to turn Duncan McCallum into a forensic expert and investigator. Skilled in "hearing the voices of the dead," McCallum's observations and experience add up to a hyper-awareness of the evil that people can do. Wouldn't it be nice to blame it all on the British, or at least on the French, reaching down with other Native allies -- especially the Huron -- to challenge the ownership of the rich lands of New England?

Pattison, who also writes a series that involves Tibetan Buddhist lamas in Chinese-occupied terrain, crafts a many-layered plot that hinges on evil being possible for anyone, no matter what their origin or "clan." Soon McCallum and Conawago find themselves chasing a tribal leader named The Revelator. And the Iroquois council puts an added burden on them, one that McCallum discovered and would have embraced anyway. They are to rescue a group of kidnapped children.

Turning the tables on classic "Indian Wars" tales of white settler children being kidnapped, Pattison instead reveals a daring plot that involves holding the young children of tribal leaders, for ultimate leverage. Then he winds McCallum in accusations from so many directions that it seems everyone is willing either to kill him or capture him (or both). As evidence of criminal activity gradually adds up so do the deaths of McCallum's friends and allies. Battle is about to begin, and it's unlikely that rescue of the children can take place in the midst of such death and destruction: that absolute form of corruption of life, after all.

Parallel to his Inspector Shan/Tibet series, Pattison's Bone Rattler books dare to compare forms of spiritual wisdom and pathways, looking not just at evil (crime fiction, after all!) but at the nature of good. This third Bone Rattler "mystery of Colonial America" raises intriguing questions and insight into the clash of cultures in the New World -- even as it sets up McCallum and Conawago to risk everything for the chance to keep the Native tribal cultures viable for a generation longer.

A good read -- and one that's left me thoughtful and ready for a long, long walk in the forest.

MEET ELIOT PATTISON at Kingdom Books on Sunday July 28 at 7 pm; or if you can't be here, reserve a book or two, signed, and we'll ship them to you the next day. Also featured in this event is Pattison's newest book in his Inspector Shan series (see yesterday's review). We'll have copies of both of his newest books -- Mandarin Gate and Original Death -- but in limited numbers, so please contact us (802-751-8374 and KingdomBks at if you'd like to reserve copies of these or other Pattison mysteries for signature and purchase.

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