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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

A Silk Road spine-tingler

Reading Time: 3 minutesJohn Pollard’s In Search of Shipki La is a thrilling mystery that looks into the disappearance of a man on the hippie trail of the 60s

In Search of Shipki La

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In Search of Shipki La, 2013, is a novel by John Pollard, a Sydney academic. Shipki La is a pass which was once an offshoot of the Silk Road that served as a trade route between Tibet and India in days gone by, used by travellers and merchants for millennia. However, since the 1960s, or even earlier, only residents of the pass have been allowed access. Shipki La itself makes only a cameo appearance in this novel, but is a catchy title nevertheless.

Author John Pollard has actually set this mystery novel in a series of interesting places along what one may call the “Hippie trail” of the 1960s, which he and his wife, like many young people of that generation, took from Europe to the subcontinent and on to South East Asia. To him and his cohorts, these were quite strange and ‘mysterious’ places in the 1960s, and into these he throws an imagined mystery; the disappearance of a young man, and the attempt to find clues 40 years later, and to write a novel that would tell readers about these places then and now.

Pollard writes in his blog that one of the reasons he wrote this thriller was that he often wondered what it would be like for a Western traveller to ‘disappear’ in one of these places in the 1960s, and what an attempt to unravel it 40 years on would be like.

The novel begins with the disappearance of a young American draft dodger Dan, around 1968. His parents in Buffalo, New York, engage the services of investigators to try and find out what happened to their son. The last coded postcard they had received from him suggested that he was in Afghanistan. However, the investigator is unable to unearth any leads.

Almost 40 years later, Dan’s widowed mother re-engages the investigation company to find out what fate befell her son when she chances upon the names of an Australian couple that was camped in Kabul at the same time as her son was. Hoping they might be able to provide information regarding her son’s disappearance. The search is renewed, and a young private detective and his Australian friends find themselves travelling to Peshawar, Delhi, Simla, Rampur, Shipki La, Bangkok and Laos to find the clues to Dan’s mysterious disappearance.

The book works well more as a mystery novel than a travelogue, as the focus of the novel is the Australian couple and the private investigator and what they do, rather than the sights, sounds and people of the places they visit in the course of their search for clues to Dan’s disappearance. There are some really cliff-hanging moments in the novel, and the attempt by the private investigator to piece together some clues surrounding Dan’s disappearance from a few titbits are full of suspense. There is also the trios brush with the Thai police, their kidnapping by a bar owner in Bangkok, which ends in a nail-biting finish.

There is an old-world quality about the novel which may appeal to a certain age cohort, however, some may say that it is perhaps too quaint and dated in the way many characters in the novel are portrayed. Most of the people in India and Thailand (where the bulk of the action takes place) are only marginal players and serve more as props to the protagonists; the Scotchman Andy and his two Australians friends. They do the thrilling stuff and are subjects who have agency; the locals do not. From that point of view, it is not in the same league as Colin Cotterell’s books on the fearless Laotian Doctor Siri Paiboun or Alexander McCall-Smith’s Precious Ramotswe of the No 1 Detective Agency series, where the local sleuths are very much in charge of their investigations, despite all the hardships they face. It is nevertheless a fast-paced, racy read for a lazy afternoon.

John Pollard is a Sydney-born academic who is now a Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Financial Studies at Macquarie University.

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Chitra Sudarshan
Chitra Sudarshan is an academic and a public servant.

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