Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Eliot Pattison's ultra-outsider detective

Outsider detective-fiction protagonists do not constitute the world's most exclusive club, but Eliot Pattison's Shan Tao Yun is more profoundly an outsider than most.

He's Han Chinese, but he lives and works in Tibet, where the Chinese are not universally loved, to state the case mildly. Not only has he lost his job as a police investigator in Beijing because he crossed Communist Party officials , but he has been exiled to a brutal labor camp in Tibet as punishment. In the first Inspector Shan novel, the Edgar-winning Skull Mantra, he is still a prisoner when officials reluctantly call on him for help to solve an urgent case. They are so far from anywhere that there is simply no other competent investigator to be found.

Shan's work on that case earns him an uneasy and unofficial freedom that he spends in a secret, illegal Buddhist monastery with monks he met while in prison. He continues in this semi-hidden, shadowy state in Prayer of the Dragon, the fifth in the series.

In this latest novel, he and the monks Gendun and Lokesh have been summoned to an isolated Tibetan village where Beijing's rule had not managed to penetrate thoroughly, but no matter; some of the village traditions are brutal enough on their own without Chinese help. "It was a strange gray place," Shan thinks, "in which the worst of both worlds was combined."

All this makes Shan Tao Yun more of an outsider than your average cop who's impatient with his boss. For one thing, Shan's outsider status is far more dangerous than that of most crime protagonists.

I'll stop now and let you go read the books yourselves. You'll find a list of them here. While you're on your way to the bookshop or library, ponder this question: Of all the outsider crime-fiction protagonists you know, who is the most outside, the most precarious, the most alienated? What makes him or her that way?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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6 Comments:

Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Peter, one example of the outsider is Easy Rawlins in the Walter Mosley books. He is a complete insider in the poor black communities of LA (and Houston), but often has to cross over to white communities, where he is a true outsider. The Watts riots made people in California more overt about excluding or fearing blacks, which we see examples of in Blonde Faith.

Best wishes,

Jim

http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/
http://greenchemistry.wordpress.com/
http://www.uber.com/bashkin001

February 22, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

p.s. As we discussed regarding our separate reviews of The Skull Mantra,* Qiu Xiaolong offers great insights into China and great fiction (crime fiction, as it turns out). I finally did have a chance to talk to him last Saturday, and will write up an interview ASAP.

Best wishes again, Jim

*
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/10/skull-mantra-and-question-for-readers.html
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/2007/09/murder-in-china-and-tibet-and-london.html

February 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Welcome back. Once I wrote about Eliot Pattison again, I figured it would be just a matter of time before you showed up.

I'll also look for your chat with Qiu. In his case, the author is probably more of an outsider than his protagonist. Being outside China during the events of 1989, and remaining outside, has certainly let him be more openly critical than other authors might be. But I don't think his Inspector Chen is nearly the outsider that Pattison's Shan Tao Yun is.

February 22, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Peter, thanks. I have some catching up to do with your site. Though I have been able to read it off and on, I haven't commented for a while, obviously (my environmental writing has taken a lot of time, and so did my latest book review).

I completely agree about Inspector Chen. The writer is the real outsider, not the character.

February 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Easy Rawlins is a good example, though I've only read earlier books and stories in the series, set in the 1940s and maybe the 1950s, which means nothing from the time of the Watts riots.

He's an outsider to the point that he has in one story a special sympathy for a white character who has declared his own outsider status by marrying a black woman. Easy Rawlins is amused when that character makes a caustic remark about "the white world."

Come to think of it, Mosley's Socrates Fortlow is another sympathetic outsider.

February 22, 2008  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

The Rawlins books deal directly with the Watts riots in Little Scarlet, book 8, and rather indirectly with their aftermath in the next two (I haven't read book 9, Cinnamon Kiss, but I've discussed it with friends, and I read #10, Blonde Faith). Apparently, there is a lot of pertinent information to the general development of the characters in the short stories Mosley has published on the Rawlins ensemble, but I haven't read those stories yet. I should write a review of Blonde Ambition soon...

The amazing thing is that the Watts riots took place when I was 7, not very long ago at all (or so I think). It is easy to forget what the real history of this country entails. Mosley does a great job of telling the story through Rawlins and his experiences without writing a polemic.

Jim
http://nearlynothingbutnovels.blogspot.com/
http://greenchemistry.wordpress.com/

February 23, 2008  

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