Monday, August 4, 2008

The Map Thief

Mara laughed. "So what does this committee really do?"

"They hop on their private jets and meet from time to time to fix little things like presidential elections. Just this past week they all flew out to Amelia Island, Florida, where they probably axed a few senators over martinis." His voice grew serious. "It's a secretive club of extreme Christian conservatives and their political allies."

Thus the "conspiracy of extreme Christian conservatives" is revealed in The Map Thief, a historical mystery novel by Heather Terrell, released last month. For those of you who might consider yourself to be "extreme Christians," I will bet you had no idea that the next presidential election is being arranged by your own. As anyone who has ever sat on a parish committee well knows, it is a challenge to get Christians of the same denomination to stop squabbling and agree on practicalities; the prospect of those belonging to different sects all conspiring together to dominate the world in a "Committee for National Policy" is mind-boggling.

Along with the nefarious "Committee for National Policy" the novel features the medieval "Order of Christ," who seem to be united in the same deceptive purposes. The Order, based upon a genuine confraternity, is a group of Portuguese noblemen who do not want it to be known that it was the pagan Chinese, not the Portuguese sailors, who first discovered the sea route around Africa, opening up the Age of Discovery and the voyages to the New World.

Undaunted by the agenda of such shadowy organizations is Mara Coyne, a young American attorney of Irish Catholic descent. Mara, who specializes in recovering lost or stolen works of art, is a spunky girl with a great deal of integrity. She has been hired by a Republican power broker to find a stolen fifteenth century Chinese map of "All Under Heaven," said to be the first ever map of the whole world.

Other than the hokey aspect of the dark conspiratorial groups, The Map Thief is a fun read, highly suited to the tastes of "extreme Christians." Instead of graphic sex and violence there is subtle romance and page-turning suspense. Mara's travels take her from the lairs of Chinese bandits to elegant receptions in Portuguese palaces. She also dines in a great many five star restaurants. The companion of her search is an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, Ben Coleman, a scruffy eccentric with his own brand of chivalry. The descriptions of Lisbon bring the old city to life.

There are historical flashbacks to the lives of the Chinese eunuch who made the stolen map, and the Portuguese navigator who uses it to find the way to the Indies. The struggles of both men, united only by the map, are presented with poignancy and historical accuracy, as far as I could tell. Figuring prominently in the novel is a famous polyptych, known as the "Adoration of St. Vincent," linked in the story to the mysterious map. While I enjoyed the combination of history, art and suspense of The Map Thief, I was disappointed at the fact that groups of Christians are portrayed as criminal, which damaged the integrity of an otherwise entertaining tale.

(*The Map Thief was sent to me as a gift be the author's publicist.) Share