Tuesday, March 1, 2016
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Mrs. Paco has gotten into the habit of shopping regularly at Dollar Tree (thrifty woman!), and one day, not so long ago, I went with her and idly perused the book section. As you would expect, the inventory was mostly melodramatic potboilers, romance novels, self-help tomes and the like, but I made a couple of accidental discoveries which have provided me with an introduction to two interesting authors. One is Ben Bridges, whose novels of the Old West I’ve been devouring at a furious rate. As the world devolves into moral ambiguity, political pusillanimity and decadent perversity, I can’t resist the stark and unapologetic contrast between good and evil that characterizes much of the genre’s offerings, and Bridges fills the bill to my complete satisfaction; his lawmen and bounty hunters, ranchers and outlaws, collide in stories that are well-plotted and well-written, and I have yet to tire of them.
Another author I came across, William Dietrich, has created a marvelous character named Ethan Gage. Gambler, adventurer, ladies’ man and former assistant to Benjamin Franklin, Gage is an interesting denizen of the early National Period, whose combination of luck (good and bad), dalliances with comely representatives of the fair sex, and proclivity for getting thrown together with ambitious villains (quite against his will) propel him into fantastic voyages of discovery, mostly in the company of mad savants, mysterious beauties and accidental friends who bail him out of some impossible predicaments. In the first novel of the series, Napoleon’s Pyramids, Gage finds himself footloose in Paris, making his living at the card table and basking in some minor notoriety because of his previous association with Franklin, and using his limited knowledge of the phenomenon of electricity, picked up from his mentor, to do parlor tricks. At the tables one evening, he wins a primitive-looking artifact– a small golden disc decorated with curious markings – from a soldier who has lost all of his cash. Another player – Count Solano – demonstrates an ill-concealed desire to possess the medallion, but the more strongly he expresses his interest, the more resistant Gage is to selling it. Before the evening is over, Gage finds himself framed for the murder of a prostitute and on the run for his life. Through the intercession of a friend, our hero ultimately winds up as one of the savants that Napoleon carries with him on his invasion of Egypt, and becomes embroiled with Freemasons, Mameluke warriors, an ancient pharaonic priesthood, the British Navy, and, of course, a beautiful and mysterious woman named Astiza. All of the participants are in search of one treasure or another – Napoleon and Count Solano for a book that presumably contains the secrets of life and, more importantly (for Napoleon, at least), the keys to political power, whereas Gage has visions of mountains of gold.
Treasures are found, change hands and are lost at a dizzying pace in this fast moving, highly entertaining novel, which has given us a decidedly human-scale, and frequently reluctant, hero acting in a world of visionaries and fanatics who are groping for knowledge that could be a boon or a catastrophe for mankind, depending on who is in possession of it.
This series is very much in the tradition of the old-time adventure novels, with a picaresque twist in the form of Ethan Gage – part Indiana Jones, part Flashman. The second book in the sequence - The Rosetta Key - picks up with the continuing escapades of Gage in Egypt, and his return to France (I should mention that not least of the stories’ charms is the author’s sure-handed depiction of Bonaparte). The Third Novel - The Dakota Cipher - takes Gage back to America, on a dual mission for Napoleon and newly elected president Thomas Jefferson, in the company of an earnest Norwegian who is searching for proof of the early venturing into North America by Norsemen, and for an ancient artifact that may contain god-like power (the Norwegian, incidentally, sports the awesome moniker, Magnus Bloodhammer).
These are intriguing reads, infused with descriptions of genuine historical events and even fascinating detours into the strange and revealing mathematics of the pyramids. They are tales of a time that was ripe with hope and revolution and infinite possibilities, and are thus the perfect anodyne for the tedious concerns that consume - or are rather imposed on - us by a world that has lost its sense of wonder and embraces banality as if it were a bride.