Why Malta? A Mystery-Thriller Author Tells Why

“Why Malta?” my new Maltese friends kept asking me when they find out that my mystery-thriller The Cellini Masterpiece is set on Malta. Mind you, only the Maltese ask that question. (Some kind of national inferiority complex?) Americans ask “Malta Who?” or “Where the heck is Malta?” or “Is it about the Maltese Falcon?” (They must always think that they’re the first ones to think that up.)

The difference in questions is obvious. The Maltese are puzzled. Americans are plain ignorant. Someone once wrote that the way Americans learn geography is by war.

Why Malta is the question that is harder to answer. My usual comeback is why not? That usually brings a laugh, but it’s difficult to explain how a tiny bit of limestone southwest of Sicily should hold such an interest for an American for so many years. I will be 65 by the time this article is in print, but I fell in love with Malta sight unseen as a 10-year-old in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I was a stamp collector and bought one of those cheap worldwide stamp packets, with one stamp showing Verdala Palace in Malta. Somehow it grabbed my interest, and a few years later I started reading about Malta until I had exhausted the local library collection. The chance discovery of a stamp led me to one of the most geographically and historically significant places in the world. Literally the crossroads of the Mediterranean, it has Neolithic temples pre-dating the pyramids and has been occupied by every world power since the ancient Greeks. I’m a historian, for heaven’s sake. Who wouldn’t be interested?

I was hooked. My stamp collection turned into a business, which I named Maltalately (for Malta philately). Even so, all my life I wanted to write a novel set in Malta.

At age 14 I read Cellini’s Autobiography. The rogue artist absolutely intrigued me. I also know he lived in the mid-16th Century and that the Knights of St. John defeated Suleiman the Magnificent’s Turks in the so-called Great Siege. It was the greatest holy war of all time and may have saved Europe from occupation by the Turks. Voila. Somehow my novel would involve Cellini and the Great Siege. I even had a punch-line. Now all I had to do was write it.

It took more than twenty years but I finally had a finished draft in 1985. The Jonathan Lazear Agency decided to represent it. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to find a publisher and the manuscript went back on the shelf to languish for nearly ten years before I finally went to Malta for the first time at age 54. I stayed at a bargain accommodation, the Soleado Guest House in Sliema. What a great location to set the novel! I dusted off the manuscript and started again. My first change was to give Rick, my hero’s, sidekick a sex change. My male cab driver was now a sexy young woman. The manager of the Soleado, Joey Bugeja, got a gender change, too. He was now Josefina. How could I miss?

The events of September 11, 2001, although tragic, provided another powerful plotline, since Malta is near North Africa and has close economic ties with Libya. I should be able to polish the book off in a couple of months, I thought.

Not. Things still didn’t fit together quite right. In September of 2003 I enlisted the help of a musician I had met while I was selling postcards. He liked thrillers and had a keen ear for the music of language and a discerning eye for the continuity of my story. Taking him on board was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and by the beginning of 2004 I could envision the final draft. Then I heard about the North African boat people who were landing in Malta. Wow. Now all I had to do was tie Benvenuto Cellini to Suleiman the Magnificent and add in a plot from World War II with another involving modern-day terrorists and refugees. What could be simpler? Even Snoopy could do it.

Somehow I did do it. And according to my readers, successfully. Why Malta? Because there is no other place in this whole wide world where the story would make sense.

The other answer to “Why Malta” is found, for me, in a quote from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. It could have been written for me. “I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them among certain surroundings, but they have always nostalgia for a home they know not…. Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle a

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Mystery Thriller Fans Rejoice

Operation Snowshoe
By: Thomas F. Erickson
Published By Durban House
ISBN: 978-0-9818486-0-0

Operation Snowshoe is a rare treat, a suspenseful novel that seems torn from today’s headlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and what led up to them. It’s a fast-paced thrill ride full of intrigue, spying, and rich, complex characterizations that make the participants in the drama that unfolds seem real enough to step off of the page. It’s the story of the Chicago Mafia lawyer (or consigliere, as he’s also known as) Tom Kempner, his wife, Katherine, and how when his wife gets sent a trunk containing diaries and other documents that had belonged to her grandfather, British WWII General Alan Cunningham, their lives get turned upside down. In fact, when their neighbor, the orthopedic surgeon R.A. Anthony Gaylani, snoops around and pilfers one of the documents, and Katherine tries to get her husband to pay attention to the possible connection between this and the current ongoing Arab/Israeli conflict in the Middle East, it costs her her life.

We’ve all heard and read of various wheelings and dealings between the CIA and the Mafia, but never quite like the way author Thomas Erickson deftly portrays them in this excellent dynamic novel. Everyone seems to be spying on everyone else, even while ostensibly cooperating with them, everyone has his own agendas, and it’s difficult to know who are the good guys and the bad guys, because no one is totally innocent nor above breaking the law to achieve their own goals. Erickson unfolds a cloak-and-dagger game that has its roots in the WWII era (and, one could argue, much further back, to the time of the book of Genesis in the Bible), that involves members of the British royal family, Arabic terrorist cells, 9/11, and Israel’s right to exist as an independent state.

Gaylani is the orthopedic surgeon who repaired bullet holes in Kempner’s chest and his shattered leg when Tom got wounded in Vietnam. But, Katherine suspects him of being much more than his surface cover suggest he is – some of the papers of her grandfather allude to another Gaylani, an Arabic one, who collaborated with the Nazis and swore his son would continue their plans. Could it be that their next door neighbor is the son mentioned in her grandfather’s papers, though he says that he’s a Catholic Italian and he’s married to a Jewish woman, Joanne?

Tom invites him over because Gaylani has suggested he’d like to have a wine tasting party, and he’s an expert in wines. Katherine passes out, and dies despite the doctor’s attempts to resuscitate her. Kempner doesn’t like to consider it, but eventually comes to believe his wife had been correct to suspect Gaylani as being part of a terrorist sleeper cell, and that Gaylani, having reason to think Katherine was on to him, deliberately put some sort of drug in her drink and then finished her off by strangling her under the pretense of attempting to revive her.

Being a lawyer for the mob and the confidante and legal counselor for its don, Mr. Gary Barberi, as well as the boyhood friend of the Deputy Director of the CIA, Admiral Eric Weiss, Kempner has assisted both the mob and the CIA before. Barberi is a modern sort of don, who doesn’t want the Chicago Mafia to deal drugs, and he’s got a very business-oriented attitude about increasing his and the mob’s wealth. Kempner comes to realize that maybe Gaylani didn’t act alone in murdering his wife, and though he wants to get revenge on the Arab who pretends to be an Italian, the CIA and the Mafia or both together might also have worked and planned to arrange for Katherine’s untimely demise.

Also, banker heiress and journalist Patricia Zwilling investigates the possibly suspicious death. Her grandfather was a ruthless banker, unconcerned with how his money was made, investing and laundering the Mafia’s ill-gotten gains. His fortune built a mansion on the estate he’d bought with the money he’d made, and though the mansion was burnt to the ground, Patricia still lives in the guesthouse and is trying to now use the wealth her grandfather and father accumulated for the good, distributing much of it to various charities. Her confrontations with Barberi and others are tense, and make for some of the novel’s best scenes, though virtually every page is interesting and if the novel was made into a movie, it would be, IMHO, a blockbuster that would earn millions.

Operation Snowshoe is a complex novel filled with intrigue, and it will have you on the edge of your seat, reading late into the night. How can an individual fight against the combined might of the CIA and the Mafia? What does a yellow Labrador Retriever named Snowshoe have to do with the Arb/Israeli conflict? To what lengths should a country like America, which on the surface supports freedom and equal rights for all, go to protect its sovereignty? These vital questions and many more make up the subject matter the plot of Operation Snowshoe. This is a novel I’d highly recommend to anyone who loves mystery/thrillers, and is interested in the roots of 9/11, the Arab/Israeli conflict, and the current turmoil in the Middle East.

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