Whether set in Southern Californian ethnic communities, Louisiana bayous or a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston, the more interesting mysteries take readers places they would otherwise never go. Foreign mysteries double down on the armchair adventure, mixing in exotic locales with crime-solving techniques and protagonists that won't be on the average tourist's sightseeing itinerary. But while European countries have been the settings for foreign crime series practically since Day One, the vast Asian continent is woefully underrepresented.
Such was the case for Tibet, which had been mostly overlooked until Eliot Pattison's 1999 "Skull Mantra" inaugurated a fascinating series set in a territory chafing under Chinese control, as seen through the eyes of Shan Tao Yun, a former senior inspector in Beijing's Public Security Bureau. Over the years, Shan has been disgraced and imprisoned in a Tibetan gulag, become a disciple to a group of outlawed Buddhist monks, followed the trail of stolen Tibetan art treasures to America and, in 2012's "Mandarin Gate," been sufficiently "rehabilitated" to serve as a ditch inspector in a remote Tibetan township.
In the opening scene of "Soul of the Fire," the eighth novel in the series, Shan and his mentor Lokesh are rousted from their menial work and summoned to Zhongje, a fortress-like Chinese town touted by Communist Party officials as a "showcase for the motherland" that Shan knows is literally built over the mass graves of Tibetan monks from the renowned Sangpu Abbey.
It is also the site for the convening of the People's International Commission for Peace and Order, "dedicated to eliminating the criminal acts of self-aggression that undermine harmonious coexistence in ethnic geographies." That's Party doublespeak for a bogus investigation into the self-immolations of Tibetan monks, nuns and other purbas, dissidents protesting the brutal Chinese occupation of their homeland.
The commission, Shan learns from the hatchet-faced Major Sung of the Public Security Bureau, consisted of three Westerners, operating under auspices of the United Nations, and four from the motherland — until one of them, a reformed criminal and bureaucrat named Xie, died of a heart attack during a meeting three days before. Shan has been anonymously tapped to fill the "reformed criminal" position. Lokesh is held and beaten by Sung's henchmen in the notoriously brutal Longtou Prison to ensure his good behavior. Shan despairs, knowing "the greatest torture of all was being forced to join the machine that was grinding Tibet into dust."
Shan is also assigned a "watcher," Tuan Yangdong, a half-Tibetan from the Bureau of Religious Affairs, which ruthlessly regulates the practice of Buddhism in Tibet. Tuan explains the commission has been convened by the command of Deputy Secretary Pao Xilang, a young star and "emperor" of the Communist Party in Tibet, to explain away the immolations as a criminal conspiracy of "hooligans and traitors" against the state. Yet Shan suspects a deeper purpose, distilled in the haunting death poems that are mysteriously posted about the town after the immolations.
When Shan and the other commissioners visit the site of the immolation of what is at first thought to be a monk — an act committed in full view of their commission's conference room — Shan finds evidence that points to murder.
Fueled by his suspicions and sympathy for the Tibetan cause, Shan risks missing the commission's meetings to uncover the reasons behind Commissioner Xie's death and the murder of the supposed monk. His obsession takes him into the state-of-the-art infirmary where the latter is first treated and where the staff claims to smell incense from the long-dead monks. He also visits Yamdrok, an indigenous hillside community believed by its Tibetan inhabitants to be protected by mountain gods who muster killer winds that drive Chinese government officials over the cliffs onto the jagged rocks. Watching Shan's every move is young Tuan, whose devotion to Emperor Pao and the Party mask more complex motives.
Nothing and no one in "Soul of the Fire" — Tuan, Major Sung, the dead men, the other commissioners — are what they appear to be, and Pattison spends more than half of the novel setting up a sometimes overwhelming number of characters, illusions and misdirection, which the second half unravels.
A writer of one of the death poems notes, "I worried I was nothing / but now I become a beacon to all the world." The same can be said of Shan and Pattison, whose passionate witness of a courageous people committed to nonviolent resistance makes "Soul of the Fire" one of the most moving mysteries of the year.
Woods has written four mysteries in the Charlotte Justice series.
Soul of the Fire
St. Martin's/Minotaur: 292 pp., $25.99