Few successful mystery authors are also prominent human rights advocates, and only one has been honored with prestigious awards for both endeavors. Eliot Pattison, whose Insp. Shan Tao Yun mystery series uses the whodunit format to depict the harsh treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese government, is the only person to have won both the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award (in 2000, for best first novel, for Shan’s debut, The Skull Mantra) and Tibet House’s U.S. Art of Freedom Award (in 2015).
Pattison, an international trade law attorney, first traveled to China in 1979, soon after the United States had normalized relations with Beijing, to help U.S. companies interested in investing there. That trip and many subsequent ones exposed him to government officials and ordinary citizens throughout China and Tibet, which has been under Chinese sovereignty since the 1950s.
During one of those trips, Pattison saw something that changed his life. He had become interested in Tibet when he studied Eastern religions in college. “When I witnessed the physical suppression of peaceful Buddhist monks by Chinese police, my studies began to take on a more political slant,” he says. “What I had seen in Tibetan temples increasingly haunted me. As the years went by, my concerns about Tibet grew deeper and deeper. I began to recognize how unique its culture was, and how important it was for the world to know about its past and present.”
Pattison’s books had consisted of titles such as Breaking Boundaries: Public Policy vs. American Business in the World Economy, one of the New York Times’ five best management books of 1996. “I was grappling with the dilemma of where to take my writing,” Pattison recalls. “I wanted to put a spotlight on the issues in Tibet, but I also wanted to shift from nonfiction to mystery fiction. Then I had an epiphany, realizing that I could do both by writing a mystery series set in Tibet.”
Initially, Shan, Pattison’s lead, was to be a Beijing inspector investigating cases that were linked to Tibet, but then the author says he realized “that it would be more effective for him to be subjected to the same abuses suffered by Tibetans in their prison gulag.” Shan became a man who knew too much—an inspector general whose dogged pursuit of the truth, in a case that ultimately implicated a powerful government official, led to his being exiled to a prison in Tibet with a very high death rate. In The Skull Mantra, the series’ debut, Shan was tapped by the prison’s governor to probe the murder of a prosecutor, whose death was attributed to a demon by the area’s monks.
About 20 publishers rejected Pattison’s manuscript, but he persisted and landed a deal with St. Martin’s. PW’s starred review of The Skull Mantra stated that “a venerable plot device—the discredited detective given one last chance—is invested with stunning new life in this debut thriller,” and subsequent books (2009’s The Lord of Death, 2012’s Mandarin Gate, and 2014’s Soul of the Fire) were selected for PW’s yearly Best Books lists. Pattison’s 10th—and, for now, final—Shan novel, Bones of the Earth, in which the detective investigates a corrupt Chinese development project that claimed the lives of two archeologists who’d been working to preserve Tibetan antiquities, will be published by Minotaur in March.
Pattison is passionate about explaining the importance of the setting and themes of the Shan novels. “The dismantling of Tibet by the Chinese government over the past two generations is one of the darkest chapters of Asia’s long, rich history,” he says. “While examples of more technically advanced, militarized nations overwhelming smaller countries can be found in nearly every century, the scope of Beijing’s conduct in Tibet and the scale of the damage inflicted has few parallels in any age. Tibet didn’t just have a vibrant spiritually centered culture, it had an entirely separate civilization, with centuries-old institutions of medicine, literature, education, government, and religion that were unlike any in the world. Tibet and its traditions of nonviolent compassion and individual responsibility have vital relevance for the rest of the planet. Some of the most satisfying messages I receive from readers around the world are from those who had never even known about those issues until they read my Shan books.”
Pattison’s advocacy for Tibetan human rights has landed him in the select company of recipients of Tibet House’s Art of Freedom award, which includes Richard Gere and Martin Scorcese. Tibet House, located in Manhattan, was founded, at the request of the Dalai Lama, to ensure that Tibetan civilization and culture persist. Pattison is quick to put his efforts in context: conditions for Tibetans worsened over the past two decades, and he says he’s disturbed by trends he’s observed in Western countries. “We have become too insular. A new, disturbing form of human rights activism has evolved, with a very narrow focus driven by domestic politics that ignores vastly more severe conditions elsewhere on the planet. None of us should feel truly free when human rights are being suppressed anywhere on the planet, and nowhere on the planet are rights being suppressed more severely than in the lands of Western China.”
The Shan novels have been translated into 20 languages. Unsurprisingly, however, the series (which one of Pattison’s editors credited with having created a new subgenre—that of the campaign thriller, integrating a political message into a puzzle mystery storyline) has been blocked from distribution in China. Pattison has heard, however, that English-language Shan books have been sold at Chinese flea markets.
In 2007, Pattison launched a second mystery series with Bone Rattler; that book introduced Scotsman Duncan McCallum, who finds himself transported to colonial North America and ends up investigating murders. McCallum has now appeared five times, with 2016’s Blood of the Oak and 2018’s Savage Liberty landing on PW’s list of Best Books lists in their respective years.
Despite the different settings, Pattison says that the two series have much in common. “They are both about peoples who have been abandoned by history—essentially orphans in their broader societies—who cannot rely on government for justice. Both series have a deep spiritual context and offer lenses for understanding rich but unfamiliar cultures. Tibetans, Iroquois, and Highland Scots all have cultures with important lessons for the world.”
Behind the writing of the McCallum books, however, is another kind of campaign—one aimed at addressing disturbing surveys that concluded that a majority of Americans are not historically literate. “Most of our fellow citizens have lost their sense of history,” Pattison says. “Popular culture wants us to believe that history is not relevant. Even worse, it often wants us to be shamed by it because it is rife with acts that today may be considered politically incorrect. We are suffering a peculiar cultural psychosis in which our students are taught to be embarrassed by their own history.”
Specifically, Pattison says he writes the McCallum novels “because Americans have become alarmingly disconnected from the extraordinary story of their country’s founding.” He adds, “The 18th century, particularly these middle years, was a pivotal period in the history of mankind. It was a time of profound tragedy, reflected in the near extinction of woodland tribes and Scottish Highland culture, as well as of transformative strides in science, medicine, technology, education, literature, and government. The series provides fertile ground for explaining those aspects and engaging readers with new perspectives on our shared past.”
Pattison says he has specific readers in mind when he writes—readers “who want more than some short-lived escapism in their novels.” He adds, “They want to engage with the world on a broader scale and want to be confronted not just with complex crime mysteries but also with learnings and issues they have not previously considered. I very deliberately seek to provide that engagement and those confrontations. I want my readers to be thinking about my books long after they have finished reading them.”