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Art and The Mystery (April, 2004)

by Eliot Pattison

For me, every great piece of art, in its essence, is a mystery. Many have tried to explain why a particular masterpiece moves particular viewers but the riddle can never truly be solved since its answer depends on so many variables of culture and personal experience. This is why my latest entry in the Shan series, Beautiful Ghosts,
Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison
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contains mysteries within mysteries, for though it is about art thefts and murders it is also very much about the many ways art affects people and the riddles that can arise when brush meets pigment.

Long before I lifted pen to paper—yes, I still do first drafts without electronic assists—I knew this book would include theft of religious art as a major theme, but given my characters and context of the series I also wanted to develop nontraditional motives for the crimes. While I was weighing these motives I asked more than a few people what it is that creates value in art. Gallery owners were apt to speak about markets and disposable income. A collector in London told me that it was all about the way light plays with memory. An artist in Boston told me no art had value unless it made the soul gasp. All of these perspectives are reflected among the cast of Beautiful Ghosts. When Inspector Shan must solve the bizarre crimes that threaten the lives of his Tibetan friends he is painfully frustrated until he grasps that although the significance of a priceless Tibetan art collection may be spiritual to some, it is financial, political, and even psychological to others.

As in all my Shan books, Tibet itself takes on the dimensions of a character. When I have the pleasure of speaking with my readers I often start by explaining that, after twenty years of globetrotting, I believe nowhere on the planet more poignantly reflects the collision of the old versus new, ethnic identity versus the faceless global economy, the spiritual life versus the material existence, than Tibet. As in the prior books, these collisions also are very much part of the plot, and the journeys Shan takes out of Tibet to try to save his friends, and son, only underscores the many ways that land contrasts with the rest of the world. That I have also been able to strike a political nerve in Beijing seems to be attested by the fact that my website has been blocked in China—I suspect I am the only mystery writer to be so honored.

Bone Mountain by Eliot Pattison
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I believe good books should teach as well as entertain, and achieving that goal means I embark on my own process of discovery with each new book. My journey in writing this latest novel took me deep into the stark, richly symbolic world of Tibetan art. I had long been fascinated by Tibetan thangka paintings but Beautiful Ghosts gave me the excuse to delve into their many layers of messages. Their nameless artists, many of them hermit monks working centuries ago, were seeking to instill not pleasure, but awareness, in the viewer, and the power of their work still reaches across the years. As I sat at my desk at midnight--a prime writing time for me--surrounded by examples of their works, I often felt a strong connection with the beautiful ghosts who created them. Today there may be other forms of art I look at quicker, but none I look at longer.

Copyright © 2004 by Eliot Pattison.

Posted with permission of the publisher.

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