“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
By: Thomas F. Erickson
Published By Durban House
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.
Twenty-five-year-old Mike Bowditch is a passionate Maine state game warden. It’s been seven months since the ordeal with his father, Jack Bowditch at Rum Pond (consider reading Doiron’s award-nominated debut novel, The Poacher’s Son as a preface to Trespasser).
Bowditch responds to a dispatcher’s call to investigate a deer/car collision on Parker Point Road. He arrives to find a damaged, red, rental sedan, and deer bloodstains in the middle of the road, but no driver, no deer.
What happened to the driver and the deer? Who anonymously alerted the authorities from the pay phone at Smitty’s Garage two miles away about the accident?
The rental car agreement found in the glove compartment indicates the current driver as Ashley Kim, 23, from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
State trooper, Curt Hutchins arrives at the scene soon after Bowditch. He assures him that he’ll continue pursuit of Kim, now that it’s a state police matter. Bowditch is skeptical. Something’s not right and Bowditch knows it.
Bowditch is compelled to do his own investigation of Ashley Kim’s disappearance. He entails the help of town clerk, MaryBeth Fickett and legendary, retired warden pilot, Charley Stevens. Stevens befriended Bowditch during his search for his father.
Fickett discovers that Hans Westergaard owns a summer home not far from the accident site. Westergaard is also from Cambridge, Massachusetts and a Harvard Business School professor. The Kim/Westergaard connection is too close to ignore. Bowditch calls Westergaard’s wife, Jill, and learns that Kim was her husband’s research assistant. She informs him too, that Hans left for a conference the day before and hasn’t been heard from since.
Bowditch and Stevens explore the capacious, oceanfront Westergaard home where they discover the mutilated corpse of Ashley Kim. The killer had carved the word SLUT on her body. With no sign of Westergaard, early suspicions focus on a romantic liaison between the two gone sour.
Seven years ago, Earland Jefferts, an affable, handsome, former lobsterman, was convicted of murdering twenty-year old, Nikki Donatelli. The crime occurred on a hot July night after drinking and seduction at the Harpoon Bar. Interestingly, Bowditch learns that Donatelli’s body also had the word SLUT carved into her body.
The J-Team, led by Jeffert’s aunt, Lou Bates, is determined to win him a new trial; convinced the prosecution did a botched job of presenting the evidence. They approach Bowditch about joining their mission. He initially declines. But, given the similarities between the Kim/Donatelli murders, he finds himself drawn into investigating Jeffert’s conviction.
Danica Marshall is the Assistant Attorney General who helped prosecute Earland Jefferts. Often referred to as a “courthouse sex symbol,” and “Black Widow,” she warns Bowditch to stop investigating Ashley Kim’s death, and revisiting the details of Jeffert’s conviction.
The Square Deal Diner is the town’s gossip hub. Upon entering, Bowditch has been the topic of conversation, both during his father’s disappearance and Ashley Kim’s murder.
Adventure accentuates Trespasser, as Bowditch engages in a death-defying ATV chase on an ice-filled, snow-driven night to lure local Calvin Barter. Bowditch is sure he’s the culprit whose ATV tracks have been ruining neighbor, Hank Varnum’s property: ” I shifted into a lower gear and gassed it, aiming for as much momentum as possible and hoping to hell my wheels didn’t lose traction on the icy surface.”
Bowditch met his live-in girlfriend, Sarah, during college. Despite her affluent upbringing, she was attracted to his raw, love for the outdoors. “She recognized something feral underneath my clean-cut exterior, and like many good girls from proper families, she was aroused by the scent of danger.”
His affinity for danger, both during the search for his father and now in the Ashley Kim murder investigation, have take its toll on their relationship. Her tolerance for his availability, both physically and emotionally, have peaked, especially now that she’s secretly pregnant.
Well-written fiction mirrors reality, often presenting insightful dialogue. One of the best lines in Trespasser worth contemplating is “You never really know someone until they’re no longer in your life.”
If you enjoy reading crime fiction, you’ll appreciate Doiron’s newish voice. It’s one that’s sure to become more recognizable over time.
Review: Blue Heaven by C.J. Box… In this mystery set in North Idaho, C.J. Box has gathered a diverse group of characters, among them:
A tough and headstrong rancher who is trying to save his family’s once-thriving property from creditors
A UPS driver who is dating the mother of two children who turn up missing
A rural mail carrier who has a hankering to be the center of attention, even if she has to get a little fanciful about the tales she tells
Mysterious men spied upon by a young girl who gives them made-up names-Driver, Ball Cap Man, Dark Man, and Wavy-Haired Man
The driver of a red pickup truck who may, or maybe not, be the salvation of two youngsters
A banker who finally understands the shocking consequences of his decisions.
Retired LAPD police officers who seem to find this area just right for their “final resting place”
The local sheriff, a weak-kneed sort, who takes the easiest way out, no matter what harm it may do
A volunteer search party, which includes some volunteers who are up to no good
Box weaves these characters and many others, both two- and four-footed, into an uncompromising, unsentimental, suspenseful tale that, in the manner of a well-plotted hard-boiled mystery, has good and evil built into its characters. Even though we are on the outside looking in, and we see the various threads that weave themselves into this mystery, it isn’t easy to separate the good from the evil, and the reader is shoved back and forth between yes-he-did-it-and-no-she-didn’t almost from the opening scenes.
Jess, his central character, isn’t playing at being a rancher; he is the working owner of a working ranch, as were his father and grandfather before him-and he has no intention of giving up and walking away, leaving his land to be used for purposes he cannot accept. He leads a tough, lonely life these days, making hard decisions that are forced on him by circumstance.
Still, the reader soon sees Jess for what he is-one of the good guys, the really good ones, who try always to make decisions based on what’s the best thing for everyone in whatever situation they find themselves in. But Jess is surrounded by corruption and venality, some of it he can see and sense, some of it well hidden, existing in people he should be able to trust.
He soon finds that he must take a step, make a decision that could change his life and that of two innocent youngsters. And not in a good way. But, Jess is Jess, one of the good guys every good mystery needs, and he risks his home, his good name, maybe even his life to find and stamp out the evil that is growing around him.
This story goes to the limit in mystery guessing games, although Box always gives readers a fair chance to decide for ourselves before he outfoxes us. And he sets up interesting conundrums for us to mull over while we’re reading, and maybe for days after we’ve finished the story and the mystery is solved. A well-plotted mystery such as Blue Heaven raises many ethical and moral issues along with the requisite legal ones.
We find ourselves wondering:
Why do men who have spent their lives in law enforcement tarnish the badges they wore for years by falling so far away from their oath to serve and protect?
Why do bankers in a remote mountain community in Idaho fall into today’s temptations and find themselves mimicking their counterparts in the financial centers of the country?
Why do some men and women cling to the right path, even when it would be so much easier to just take that one step across the line that separates right from wrong.
Box makes us think about these things, but never steps away from the characterizations he has built, and resists the temptation to lecture his readers as some authors do. Box describes the rugged North Idaho mountain country and its equally rugged residents from the point of view of a man who knows the area and loves it. Jess’s love for his ranch and the community around it is easy to see and understand; he belongs in this place and time.
As the story wound its way through treachery and hate and fear, through courage and honesty and love, I found myself so involved with Jess that I almost stopped reading, fearing that Box would end it in what for me would be the wrong way.
But of course I read to the end. Was it the right conclusion to Jess’s story, from my point of view? Every writer and every reader knows that there is really no such thing as a right or a wrong way to finish a mystery, or any kind of fiction, for that matter. So I leave that question unanswered.
Blue Heaven is a bang-up good read, lots of action, lots of twists and turns of plot, just the right number of good and evil characters. You’ll have to decide for yourself about the conclusion