This marvelous thriller—a seafaring mystery that pointedly evokes the immortal romances of Melville, Stevenson, and Conrad—is the fifth (and best) fiction in English translation yet from the very popular Spanish author of The Club Dumas (1997) and The Seville Communion (1998).
Its plot is skillfully and quickly set in motion when Merchant Marine officer Manuel Coy a thoughtful, bookish (though “not intellectual”) loner who is confined to land following a shipwreck that had occurred during his watch, attends an auction of “naval objects” in Barcelona. Coy observes a tense bidding war over a seemingly obscure 18th-century atlas, and later follows its winner, a beautiful blond woman named Tanger Soto, to the Madrid museum where she works as a researcher. He’s eventually enlisted in her search for the wreck of the Dei Gloria, a brigantine owned by Jesuit brethren (and carrying an undisclosed precious cargo) that had been sunk in 1767, probably by a pursuing pirate ship, off the southern coast of Spain. Pérez-Reverte paces his tale expertly, shifting its focus among the dangers that threaten Tanger’s undertaking (including a sinister “treasure hunter” and his “menacing dwarf” hireling, a former Argentinean death-squad mercenary), Coy’s helpless fixation on the mystery woman who simultaneously reels him in and keeps him at bay, and an impressive wealth of nautical and navigational technique and lore. The story takes a dazzling turn 100 pages from its end, when its omniscient narrator “introduces” himself (along with other, even more crucial revelations), and ends up smashingly, with a “tragicomedy of betrayals” that underscore the embittered Coy’s resemblance to the resigned, burnt-out characters of (his favorite author) Joseph Conrad: “weary heroes, . . . aware of the danger of dreaming when at the helm.” In a virtually perfect fusion of absorbing action and precise, intricate characterization, Pérez-Reverte magically sustains the tension and suspense over a span of almost 500 pages.
A classic of its genre, equal to the best of Eric Ambler and Patrick O’Brian—and, beyond genre, not far below the levels and depths plumbed by Melville and Conrad themselves.