Mystical Lore and a "Perfect" Murder
Clyde B. Clason, The Man from Tibet (Rue Morgue, 1998)
In unskilled hands, a stolen Tibetan manuscript would be no more than a macguffin, the monk who seeks to recover it a stereotyped Oriental and the exotic background of lamaistic Buddhism a mere swatch of distracting "color". What makes this "fair play" detective novel exceptional - well worth reading six decades after its original publication - is its use of all of these elements as integral parts of an expertly constructed story.
Clason's detective, Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, is perfectly matched to this case. A fussy, unworldly scholar - when we first meet him, he is correcting proofs of his new monograph and puzzling over the publisher's decision to title it "Heliogabalus: Rome's Most Degenerate Emperor" - he is believably capable of tackling the mystical teachings of an Eighth Century sage and discerning their role in a Twentieth Century murder. In a more mundane setting, he might be a bit of a caricature; in this one, he shines.
The plot is strong enough to withstand weaknesses of a kind not unexpected in a genre novel of its era. Westborough's police detective friend is more than a bit of a caricature. An insipid romantic subplot serves no apparent purpose except to give the one young female among the dramatis personae something to do. The mechanism by which the foul deed is carried out makes Rube Goldberg look like a master of simplicity. And the ending comes abruptly as soon as the murderer is unmasked, leaving the reader to wonder (it is a tribute to the book's qualities that he does wonder) what afterwards befell the lama Tsongpun Bonbo and the alluring but dangerous writings of Padma Sambhava.
Clason wrote half a dozen other detective novels before abandoning the field to concentrate primarily on nonfiction. According to the publisher's afterword, he has continued to hold a high reputation among a very small segment of mystery readership. On the evidence of The Man from Tibet, that segment deserves speedy enlargement.