Sunday, January 28, 2018

UNDOMESTICATED – Jeffrey Scott Holland

Norman Mailer claimed certain works of art can be medicinal, that by engaging the psyche in certain ways even lethal diseases such as cancer can be defeated. He gave as an example a passage in Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs. The scene describes an emergency surgery being conducted in a lavatory. The surgeon, a Dr. Benway, "looks around and picks up one of those rubber vacuum cups at the end of a stick they use to unstop toilets . . . He advances on the patient . . . 'Make an incision, Doctor Limpf,' he says to his appalled assistant . . . 'I’m going to massage the heart.'
William S. Burroughs
"Doctor Limpf shrugs and begins the incision. Doctor Benway washes the suction cup by swishing it around in the toilet bowl . . .
"NURSE: 'Shouldn’t it be sterilized, doctor?'
"DR. BENWAY: 'Very likely but there’s no time...'
"DR. LIMPF: 'The incision is ready, doctor.'
"Dr. Benway forces the cup into the incision and works it up and down. Blood spurts all over the doctors, the nurse and the wall . . . The cup makes a horrible sucking sound.
"NURSE: 'I think she’s gone, doctor.'
"DR. BENWAY: 'Well, it’s all in the day’s work.'”
Far as I know cancer has avoided me since I read that passage many decades ago. If Mailer was right, perhaps you are safe from the Big C now, as well. More recently, a novel by another Kentuckian, Jeffrey Scott Holland, has passages, which, following Mailer's intriguing logic, might also fortify the psyche against alien microbes and rebellious cells. Holland's Undomesticated has no toilet-plunger-open-heart-massage scenes, but some of his writing made me laugh so healingly it frightened off a bout of imminently catastrophic ennui. Holland's startling, carefree style provided the saving adrenalin fix right off the bat. This, from a brief phone chat between Paula and Stuart in chapter one:

Jeffrey Scott Holland
 "‘I thought you said [St. Petersburg, Fla.] was paradise,’ groaned Stuart on the other end of the connection.
"'It seemed like it at first. But after a while, you look around and realize it's basically like Ohio with palm trees. And everywhere you go, there's reclaimed water spraying on everything and it's disgusting!'
"‘What is that?’
"'Reclaimed water? It's sewage that they half-assedly purify just enough to make it okay to water lawns with. But they can't be purifying it much because it still reeks like sewage! Everyplace smells like diarrhea and everyone acts like I'm crazy when I say something about it, they're all just used to it.'"
Paula then tells Stuart she'd been in a car crash, and feared she would die listening to Billy Joel playing Beatles on her car radio:
"'I wanted to scream. I couldn't change the channel. That's what kept me from losing consciousness, because I wanted so badly to pull myself together enough to change the channel...I finally managed to lean down and hit the scan button with my shoulder. Oh my God. It was a nightmare. I didn't want that to be the last thing I heard before I died!'...
"Paula was a heroin addict, and Stuart knew exactly what she was getting at. He sat stonily silent on the other end."

Undomesticated's narrative voice carries a deadpan tongue-in-cheek wit that follows a loosely stitched whimsical story arc involving some three dozen characters, many with only walk-on parts who nonetheless sparkle with oddball personality during their spotlight moment. While the intense individual concerns of most seem at first random and unconnected to the others—reminiscent of Burroughs's disjointed narratives he called his "cut-up style--a consistent thread begins to emerge engaging many of them in different ways. At the same time Undomesticated does the kind of kooky send-up of Florida that's made Carl Hiaasen famous as the state's king satirist. Holland, whose approach is hipper, less forced, is a serious pretender to that throne.
The book's promotional pitch claims Undomesticated represents Holland's "stab at what he terms 'The Great American Werewolf Novel' as well as a "recombinant treatise on unrestrained human behavior." It's set in St. Petersburg where its characters step "apprehensively down the roads of this realm. There's Kevin, a funeral home director, and his assistant who begin to suspect the existence of werewolves; and Tex, the county coroner who seems eager to dissuade them from their investigations. There's Lauren, who has quickly shacked up with an eccentric professor she met online; and Ellen, a painter whose life changes forever after an encounter with a mysterious woman deep in the Ocala National Forest."
The pitch leaves out Jonesy, the cop who writes poetry and seems always to get the frequent calls when jumpers are seen perched on the city's infamous Sunshine Skyway "suicide bridge." The pitch fails to mention Florida's (fictional, one presumes) dominant motorcycle gang, Wolfmen, a bunch of posers who sport silly names such as Golfclub, Weedeater, and Dinnerbell. I believe I actually peed my pants amid spasmodic laughter when a real werewolf eats one of the fearsome Wolfmen alive. (Did I really just type that?) Here's Golfclub, the Wolfmen's leader, dressing down a new member who'd suggested pimping for prostitutes:

"'I'd rather you steal a prostitute's purse and max out her credit card than to lock her in a room and make her a slave. That is not the way of the Wolfmen, you got it?'
"Golfclub went through a series of physical cues and tics he'd absorbed by watching gangster shows and movies. He relaxed his stern expression, looked down for a moment, pursed his lower lip and gave a gentle nod, then cuffed Goose-Egg's face hard with that 'You're a good kid, now get out of here' sort-of slap and then a pat. He raised his head and smiled and addressed the whole group once again. 'Meeting's adjourned! Let's ride, bros!'"
Then again, maybe that's the scene where I...nevermind. Or was it this scene at Kevin's mortuary?:
“This body in particular was a mess, having been accidentally run over repeatedly by a semi-truck on Central Avenue. The family were insisting on an open-casket funeral. Kevin was good, but he was not a miracle worker, and both men dreaded having to tell the relatives that an open casket was probably not going to be desirable.”
No, dadgummit, it was the novel's final scene! Here's how it starts:
"Mrs. Nogales sat alone on the floor at a small child's colorful toy tea-set table in her living room. Lined up all around the table were various stuffed animals, dolls, and toy figurines. Each had a place setting with real cake on toy plates. She took the teapot and poured a tiny cup of tea for each of them...
"‘And now, my friends, we already sang Happy Birthday to Huevo, but now I think we should sing the Special Egg song. Okay?’
"'Okay!!' she responded to herself in a shrill garbled voice meant to represent all of the toys speaking in unison..."
Best keep a tight grip on that crown, Hiaasen!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

PRESENT DANGER – Stella Rimington

Present Danger was a fun read. Good story, swift pacing, believable characters, smart dialogue, authoritative, authentic feel...I...I can't think of anything I didn't like about it. Yet, I might never have downloaded it onto my Kindle app had it not been for a friend's introduction on the Friday's Forgotten Books blog feature. But it was more than that. FFB contributors review a lot of spy thrillers. And while I have nothing in particular against the genre—I read a slew of them back in the day—I guess I just reached a saturation point. They all started feeling the same. Voice, setting, plot, pacing. Predictable. Formulaic. The thrill of discovery was gone. It was the author of Present Danger who seemed fresh: Stella Rimington, former director general of MI5, Britain's internal security service. The secretive outfit John le Carré hunted spies for and made famous in his novels.

Dame Stella Rimington
And yet, that novelty and my friend’s recommendation still weren’t enough for me to tap Amazon’s one-click-buy button. I was close, but I wanted to know something about Stella Rimington to make sure she wasn’t merely selling her name and reputation to some spy-thriller ghostwriter to crank out the same old stuff. Quickest way to find out, I figured, was to click up Wikipedia, and, oh boy, what a sales job! Even if perchance some anonymous ghost has written the nine Liz Carlyle novels for Rimington (which my keen intuition assures me isn’t true). Stella Rimington is one amazing former chief spy hunter.
[Yes, this is turning into more of a thing about Stella Rimington than about Present Danger, but don’t despair. We will get to it, presently!]

Working her way up the career ladder from a job as office aid to MI5’s representative in India, she served in all three branches of the service: counter espionage, counter subversion, and counter terrorism. Twenty-three years later she was appointed as one of two deputy directors general, and a year later to the top job. Whoever was responsible for promoting Rimington as Britain’s first female head of MI5 may not have known the expression be careful what you wish for. Rimington not only abetted a media feeding frenzy, allowing her name to be publicized—the first for an MI5 head—she swept away much of the service’s tradition of secrecy, including posing for a brochure outlining the service’s activities, no doubt producing gasps heard all the way to Ten Downing Street. And her outrageously progressive ideas did not end with her retirement from the five-year top job.
She published her memoirs, Open Secret, and began writing her Liz Carlyle thrillers. Meanwhile she spoke out against national ID cards, she described the U.S. response to 9-11 as a “huge overreaction,” and she criticized the British administration for not "recognizing that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state." And she took the British literati to task when as chair of the 2011 Man Booker Prize judges, she and her fellow judges took flak for focusing on "readability" rather than literary quality. She responded in her speech at the Booker ceremony, comparing British critics to the KGB.

One might assume then that Present Danger’s readability is beyond reproach. To this I would most assuredly not say nyet! Like a sample of its readability? Here ya go:
Liz looked down at Reggie’s desk where a laptop showed the satellite map of this small area of Bangor. They’d chosen it because it was outside Belfast, yet easily accessible by train and by car. As she stared down at Dufferin Avenue on the laptop screen, ten miles away Terry Fleming walked slowly down that road in the direction of the railway station. When he saw the man across the street walking in the other direction, he said in a voice barely louder than a whisper, “Brown Fox moving north. There’s no one behind him.” The miniature microphone under the lapel of his overcoat relayed this instantly to the Control Room.”
Didn’t even hafta keep your pinky in the air while reading that, didja? Well, anyway, I didn’t. As you can tell, the setting is Northern Ireland, and, I can add, thereabouts. The plot has MI5’s Liz Carlyle transferred there after her London boss’s wife dies. Everyone in the office knows there’s been “something” between Carlyle and the boss, Charles Wetherby. With the wife out of the way, there’s concern that “something” might become an open problem. Carlyle’s baffled, oddly, but resilient. Here’s her take on the turn of events:
When her personal life had seemed especially bleak (there’d been Mark the married Guardian journalist, Piet the Dutch banker who’d dropped her, and always, the tantalizingly unavailable Charles Wetherby), she had always found one consolation. The job. As a cure for heartache it was unbeatable.”
Not to worry. This is not a romance novel, despite having some secondary romantic elements mixed in with the suspense and the thrills. Primarily, Carlyle’s assigned to a team investigating rebellious stirrings of former Irish Republican Army operatives who aren’t buying the negotiated peace that supposedly put an end to seeming endless “Troubles” in that troubled province. Part of the transition process includes a cautious power-sharing with the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary [RUC], which had handed over intelligence work there to MI5.

There’s a villain, of course, and his name is Seamus Piggott, a cold, ruthless rebel who, in the first chapter, has a recruit’s finger broken for careless talking in a pub. And then:
Piggott stood up, brushing the sleeve of his jacket, as if to rid it of an unwanted piece of fluff. Without looking again at Aidan he came out from behind the desk and walked toward the open wall into the cellar. As his footsteps rang out on the concrete floor, he called back to Malone and the Spaniard, ‘Before you take him back to Belfast, break another one. We don’t want him to think that was just an accident.’”

Okay, I can see where a literary snob might scoff at the above paragraph. But here’s Rimington writing more lyrically. Whether it would satisfy the snob I cannot say, but it sure satisfied me:
Suddenly in the distance ahead he saw the Irish Sea, rocky outcrops and slits of sandy beach, the Mourne Mountains miles to their right, heavy and dark. They drove along the coast for several miles, through a gray stone village on a wide bay, its long street practically deserted, its ice-cream hut shut up for the winter.”

Yum. This is the fifth in the Liz Carlyle series. You know I will be reading the others.
For those interested in Liz’s love life, the question of Charles and whether they… But I shan’t answer that. The question of danger, to the MI5 team—is there? Oh, plenty. More than plenty, Were I not ensconced in my recliner reading Present Danger on my laptop I’d have been perched on the edge of my seat, right foot tapping nervously. Does Piggott get his? Well, one surely would hope so, but I am loathe to give anything away. After all, Stella Rimington probably still knows how to get things done, if you catch my drift. Some secrets, even she would agree (I assume) are meant to be kept.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, January 18, 2018

WITHOUT A WORD – Carol Lea Benjamin

[Disclaimer: Without a Word is what's known in the mystery trade as a cozy. This as opposed to hard-boiled. I'll let you guess what differentiates these types, and while you're doing so I'll assert that I consider myself a manly man who ordinarily would rather risk hyperventilation than be seen crying over a movie scene, or while watching TV commercials or even animated cartoons with talking insects. As I understand the gender roles of Western men, we manly ones ordinarily do not read cozy mysteries, or at least we're supposed to pretend we don't. I'll say this in my defense: I did not cry at all while reading Without a Word, at least I do not recall doing so—or even struggling to keep from doing so, although I was alone and would have had no reason to pretend I wasn't moved to spasms of sentiment if in fact I had been. What I did do was enjoy the hell out of Without a Wordarrrrr—and hereby recommend it to anyone who likes an intelligent, well-charactered, cleverly-plotted mystery.] 

Maybe it was the too-big sunglasses the little girl wore that kept my eyes dry despite her forlorn air and the little turtle she carried in a transparent lunch pail and the father who seemed so distant. More likely it was the unmannered voice of the private investigator describing what she saw. Right from the start, without any other reason to, I trusted her, Rachel Alexander, the Greenwhich Village PI who worked her cases accompanied always by her trusty pit bull Dashiell.

Nor did Dashiell disappoint by adding a gravelly voice to the mix, spelling his boss now and then to give us the doggie view of what seemed to be going on. No anthropomorphizing him, despite his being a beautifully trained highly intelligent pooch who succeeded where Rachel Alexander failed in displacing the alienation that kept the little girl locked in her self-imposed shell.

Here's the PI introducing herself to Madison, who, while seeming much younger, is actually twelve:

“'Hi, Madison,' I said, 'I’m pleased to meet you.'

"She lifted her free hand but not to take mine. She was reaching for her sunglasses, taking hold of them, sliding them off. The eyelid over her right eye drooped badly. The other moved quickly from left to right a few times and then stopped. Standing in front of her, Madison just staring at me, I had the same experience I sometimes got before I became a private investigator, when I used to train dogs for a living. I was suddenly privy to information that seemed to come from another creature without benefit of words. Back then, and now, it always made me want to run for cover. Have a good look, Madison seemed to be telling me, at why my mother left in the first place."
 And here's Dashiell:

"Dashiell got to the door first. I thought showing off might pay off big in the near future, that it might help convince this kid I had something to offer, get her to trust me a bit, so I asked Dashiell to open the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Madison shoot a look at me, then quickly turn back to Dash. He took the doorknob in his mouth and twisted his head. I could hear the small click as the tongue of the unlocked door released. Then he let go of the knob, backed up one step and reared up, like a horse, hitting the door with his front paws and knocking it open. Madison was enthralled."

Carol Lea Benjamin

Here's the deal: Madison stopped speaking, to anyone, three days after her mother disappeared--five years ago. Now the girl's accused of murdering her therapist by plunging a hypodermic filled with Botox into his heart. Her father, Leon, has hired Rachel Alexander to find his missing wife in the hope if she returns Madison will break her silence and persuade investigators she didn't kill the therapist.

Rachel Alexander knows the odds of finding the mother are practically nil. The woman took the family dog walking one night, and never came back. And Leon’s not much help. Barely communicative himself, he makes his living as a photographer. He hides behind his camera rather than make eye contact during his first meeting with Rachel Alexander. He displays no affection for his daughter, and vice versa.

Spending a day at their home to try and win Madison’s trust she notices Leon doesn’t kiss his daughter goodbye when he leaves for work in the morning, and completely ignores her when he returns home. Other than her turtle, whom she’s named Emil/Emily for want of knowing its gender, the girl evidently is “pretty much on her own.”

Rachel Alexander’s so baffled at one point she finds herself walking down the street “shrugging my shoulders, talking out loud, like the rest of the crazies in New York.

“I needed to do something to get my sanity back.”

Leon hired her to find the missing mother, so she has to make the effort. At the same time, she knows the best way to clear Madison of suspicion in the murder is to find the murderer. Madison's reaction to her mother’s disappearance includes violent tantrums. The circumstantial evidence that she killed her doctor focuses on her rage over the failure of his Botox treatment to arrest the nervous tics that affect her eyelids. The first eyelid he injected overreacted to the muscle-paralyzing drug. It drooped uselessly. He’d assured her the drooping problem was only temporary, and was preparing to inject the other eyelid. Madison was his last patient of the day. No one else was in the clinic. The nurse had gone home. Supposedly an enraged Madison grabbed the needle and jammed it into the doctor’s heart. She walked home alone, something she’d been doing after her appointments, Leon said.

My questions were similar to Rachel Alexander’s as, trying to keep her sanity, she plowed ahead in what at first seemed a thoroughly daunting case. I’ll give you a few answers, now that I know them, so you won’t risk your own sanity should you decide to read this fascinating cozy mystery. Do we find out what happened to Madison’s mother? Yes. Do we find out who murdered the doctor? Yes. Do we learn the complications that led to his murder? Of course we do. Does Madison speak?


CAROL LEA BENJAMIN is a noted author about, and trainer of, dogs. Her award-winning books on dog behavior and training include Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way to Train Your Dog, Second-Hand Dog, and Dog Training in Ten Minutes. A former detective, Benjamin blends her knowledge of dogs with her real life experiences to create the Rachel Alexander Mystery series. Recently honored by the International Association of Canine Professionals with election to their Hall of Fame, she lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and three dogs, Dexter, Flash, and Peep.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

THE FEVER TREE – Richard Mason

"There's a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad..." The further I read in The Fever Tree the louder my inner ear fed me Morrison's dire chanting over The Doors' funereal chords. The toad in this instance squirmed inside the skull of Maj. Ronald Birkett, secret agent assigned by a shadowy Communist group to arrange the assassination of the newly enthroned King of Nepal.

Birkett comes across initially as a caricature, a laughable cartoonish spoof of the James Bond/Matt Helm secret agent types that brought vicarious thrills to adolescent males of all ages and genders. "He abruptly switched away his gaze and found himself confronted by a lean sunburnt face with trim moustache," we learn early in the first chapter, "and the stare of two steely ice-blue eyes: his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He noted the spare erect shoulders, the disciplined bearing.

"Spare and trim, he thought. Forty-eight, but not an ounce of unwanted flesh, not a single capitulation to age."


Soon thereafter we have "spare and trim-waisted, self-sufficient, and serenely alone, the strongest and swiftest animal on the plain. The perfect animal-machine . . ." And finally, "He was on the job again. The cheetah was off on a new prowl."

At this point, still in the first chapter, It was my brain that was squirming, trying to decide whether I'd goofed in downloading this 1962 novel and maybe should delete it from my Kindle. But I was trying it on the recommendation of my blogging friend Neer, and so pushed ahead to give it a better chance. And my reward was a humdinger of a read!

Back to the squirming toad, which makes its appearance early, as well—chapter two. Our cheetah, our "perfect animal-machine," hits a bump, literally, on its way to the nighttime rendezvous with another secret agent. The hairline crack from this bump gives us a peek at the man within the cheetah's skull: "'Another jackal,' he thought. 'Must have been somewhere down in that scrub. And my God, I jumped. There’s no getting out of it,' he thought. 'I jumped. That little beggar made me jump.'

"It had not been much of a jump, and most people under the circumstances would have jumped out of their skins—but most people were not in this game. And in this game you had no right to jump at all. You trained yourself against jumping—against all outward manifestations of surprise. And normally nothing could make him jump. Even if Beelzebub had appeared at his elbow in a sulphurous flash, he wouldn’t have batted an eyelid..." His mind squirms frantically, worrying, on and on as he heads toward the rendezvous, stablizing by the time he gets there by persuading himself he could rely on his "nerves of steel" when they were needed.

With that peek of squirming toad I gained enough respect for the author to keep me reading. Now I could see Birkett was likely something more human than a cartoon character with delusions of feline prowess. And my faith in Richard Mason and his character grew steadily with the novel's advancing complexity—or, more accurately, the complexity revealing itself in Birkett's head. His "nerves of steel" are constantly under siege as he moves closer to assassination day, pressured by conflicting feelings for the naive young Indian Embassy bureacrat he must persuade to kill the king and then himself, by conflicting feelings for Lakshmi, the beautiful young Indian he coldly seduces and reluctantly finds himself falling in love with, and by suspicion that a British Embassy official is in fact a secret agent who's onto the assassination plot.

Birkett feels his self-perceived steely nerves gradually giving way under these pressures despite Herculean efforts to remain stoic. We see two episodes of his ashram-trained yoga exercises. In the first, he spends the better part of a day seated on the floor in his hotel room, practicing until sheer concentration enabled unwilled movements of his arms to a painful position. In the second effort, desperate to regain the self-confidence he found himself losing as his feelings evolved, his concentration fails. He tries to call off his young assassin, whom he's come to think of as his son, telling him he'd found someone else to shoot the king. He confesses all to Lakshmi, trying to justify his outlook by explaining the cheetah comparison: “Once I came across a cheetah in Africa— sitting by itself under a fever tree on the Serengeti. Struck me it was a lone sort of chappie like me, that’s all.”

This outlook eventually breaks down completely after he accidentally hits a goat with his jeep and then, despite striking it repeatedly with a wrench, with Lakshmi watching, horrified, fails to put the screaming animal out of its misery. He remains stoic as they drive back to the hotel, where, alone in his room, he cries for two hours.

"Once Lakshmi came in, and he did not even mind that she should see him lying there sobbing like a child.

"She asked if there was anything she could do. But he shook his head, and she went away.

"Later the sobs began to subside. At last they stopped altogether. He lay still on the damp rumpled bed. He was drained of all thought and feeling.

"Presently he got up and went over to the dressing-table. He stared in the mirror, at the bedraggled unfamiliar figure with the rumpled trousers and rucked-up vest, the blotched tear stained face, the moustache with damp crushed bristles like an old disreputable toothbrush. He had never seen a sadder bit of human wreckage.

"'Well, there you are,' he thought. 'There’s the cheetah for you. Spare and trim and dedicated— the perfect animal-machine. The King of the Plain. Well, that’s the end of that little game. No more playing at cheetahs. No more fever trees. My fever’s over. My temperature’s down.' His head was clear now and he saw quite plainly what he must do."

By now he knows the English agent is on his tail and means to turn him over to local authorities, who would mete out the death penalty. Birkett and Lakshmi decide to flee Nepal, hoping to make it to Tibet, and eventually to China. Crossing the Himalayas Birkett is stabbed by a border guard, forcing the couple to continue on foot. Feeling he is nearing death, Birkett reflects on his conversion from a cold, lethal "lone ranger" to a man ready to die in peace. He'd at last learned to live.

"For forty-eight years he had not lived, but had been a prisoner chained in darkness behind locked doors. And then he had met Lakshmi and she had touched some springs in him that had caused the doors to fly open one after another, letting in sunlight and fresh air. And he had begun to live— to experience for the first time the sheer joy of being alive.

"He would have bitterly regretted dying before this had happened. But now it had happened, and he could die with a sense of fulfilment. He could accept death with equanimity because he had learnt the value of life."

He persuades Lakshmi to head back to the border post to save herself. Now alone, he befriends a bird that's pecking futilely on the frozen ground for something to eat. Nearly frozen himself he's unable to move to keep the bird from eating the suicide capsule he had tossed away rather than take his own life. He watches "birdie boy" swallow the pill, convulse and die. The former cold-blooded Communist killer feels anguish. He recognizes the irony: "He had come to Nepal to take the life of a king, and now his heart was breaking because he had accidentally taken the life of a bird."

The Fever Tree was Mason's final novel, which followed his best known, The World of Suzie Wong.

Richard Mason

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Wednesday, January 3, 2018


A little over a year ago, moved by a Kitty Boots poem to consider braving the nearly 8,000-foot killer Andes altitude of Machu Picchu, I almost put Machu Picchu on my bucket list. But being a tad chickenhearted and a habitual procrastinator, I neglected doing so. In fact, truth be told, I had yet to do a bucket list at all. Months later a friend who'd been to Machu Picchu described the breathlessness of her experience, literally, from the arduous climb to its summit and, at the summit, her figurative gasp at the momentous vista she beheld. This New Year's morning, with no warning, Machu Picchu invaded my imagination urging that I should no longer delay starting a bucket list, if only for the sake of adding Machu Picchu to it. This I did forthwith, putting Machu Picchu right under the first item on the list: to write and sell a marketable novel that can enable me to afford a trip to Machu Picchu.

Once committed, I immediately entered the planning stage, and went to Amazon (not the Amazon, doofus!) to see what books, if any, there might be about the sixteenth-century Inca citadel. There were so many I gave up counting. Yet, understanding the need for due diligence in launching a project this challenging, I meticulously narrowed my choice to two books. Both happened to be the top two listed. I eventually downloaded the one at the very top, which I learned later was quite the better of the two. The next one down, I learned, the one I’d rejected--although written by Hiram Bingham III, the Yale professor/explorer who on July 24, 1911, first photographed Machu Picchu and who was the inspiration for the fictional character Indiana Jones--was nowhere near so useful as the one I chose: Turn Right at Machu Picchu. This became more and more obvious, as Turn Right at Machu Picchu embraced the story of Bingham’s “discovery” of what he thought was the fabled Lost City of the Incas, as well as a history of the Incas and a trudging reenactment of Bingham’s trek through Peru’s jungles and over its mountains a century later by Turn Right’s author, Mark Adams.

And if the Indiana Jones link is art imitating life, Adams’s Australian guide, John Leivers, was, in the author’s eyes, the reverse, the spitting image of another fictional character, Crocodile Dundee (which, in a double reverse, was based on another real Australian Outback guide).

As he approached forty-one, Adams found himself feeling something of a midlife crisis. In his job as a New York editor with adventure magazines, sending writers off on assignments to exotic places, he was getting an itch to have an adventure of his own. “On paper, I was an adventure expert,” he writes. “My actual boots-on-the-ground experience was somewhat limited. I had never hunted or fished, didn’t own a mountain bike and couldn’t start a fire without matches if ordered to do so at gunpoint."

About this time, he says, articles about Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu began turning up in the news. “As piles of Bingham-related material accumulated on my computer’s desktop, I noticed that one crucial piece of information seemed to be missing. No one could say with confidence exactly why this extraordinary complex of stone buildings had been constructed in the first place. Was it a fortress? A sun temple? A really elaborate granary? A spiritual portal to the fourth dimension, constructed by extraterrestrial stonemasons? All of these ideas had been floated, but only one person seemed to have definitive answers: Bingham.”

Adams's interest gradually grew into an obsession. Over the hundred years since Bingham’s archaeological coup, countless experts have argued over the significance of Machu Picchu. Most modern theories discounted as "ridiculous" Bingham’s claim that he’d found the Lost City.The latest hypothesis that seemed to be generally accepted, Adams says, was that of a couple of Yale scholars “who’d spent years going over the artifacts that Bingham had excavated.” The students concluded that Machu Picchu had been the country estate of an Inca emperor.

I thought: That’s it? The lost summer home of the Incas? There had to be more to the story.”

On a sudden inspiration he called his wife at her veterinarian job. What would you say,” he asked her, “if I told you I wanted to quit my job and go follow in the footsteps of the guy who found Machu Picchu?”

“‘I guess...’ She paused. Somewhere in the background an angry kitten meowed. ‘I guess I’d say, What took you so long?'"

Hiram Bingham III
Adams had gotten somewhat familiar with Peru periodically visiting his wife’s kin and friends in Lima. He’d even been to Machu Picchu, but as a typical tourist, the kind known to John Leivers and other professional guides as “martini explorers.”

“‘People used to be travelers, Mark,’ Leivers told him as they prepared to head into the jungle.’Now they’re tourists. People want hotels, cafés, the Internet. They won’t even camp!’

“‘You’re kidding!’ I said, a little too loudly. I had already checked my e-mail at an Internet café twice that morning. The last time I’d slept in a tent was in 1978, when my father brought an imitation teepee home from Sears and set it up in our backyard.”

While there are three preferred ways to get to the Machu Picchu citadel, ranging from over a week taking the Inca Trail to about an hour by train from the nearest city, Cusco, and a little longer “the back way” on foot along the tracks of a railroad spur, Adams opted for a fourth: to follow Bingham’s meandering hundred-mile trek of about a month. This meant packing supplies on mules and walking through topography that can shift from mountain frigid to tropical torrid in an instant. One simple mistake can cost a life or serious misery. Adams experienced the latter when he forgot to wear two pair of socks in his boots. His toes got so blistered he had to wrap electrical tape around them and walk with splayed feet, like a duck, to keep up with his guide and the mule team. A whip-back bush branch Leivers had chopped carelessly with his machete cut one of his eyeballs forcing him to wear an eye patch, thus limiting his three-dimensional vision, a danger in itself in such treacherous conditions.

Australian guide John Leivers on the ancient Inca Trail

Now that I’ve concluded my preliminary research it’s obvious to me I will be using one of the lesser three ways to reach the citadel. I’d prefer to walk the stone-paved Inca Trail, but at the very end there’s a long set of white stairs reaching a summit, a set of tall stone pillars guides call “the gringo killer.” Not that I’m afraid or anything, but...going in “the back way” might be fun! Depending on weather, though, I just might end up sheepishly riding the damned train.

Then there’s the question of uniqueness, the idea of doing something out of the ordinary. I picture myself standing alone among the geometric landscaping and puzzling buildings of the citadel itself, gazing up at Huayna Picchu, the peak to the north, or down from Machu Picchu (the mountain) in the south. But such is most likely impossible, considering Machu Picchu (citadel and namesake mountain) comprise the most popular tourist attraction in South America.

Adams says the number of annual visitors to the site had doubled in the ten years since 2000 from about four hundred thousand to more than eight hundred thousand, This, despite the price of entry tickets more than quadrupling during that time.

“A person can easily spend two hundred dollars a night on accommodations,” he says.”Rooms up at the site-adjacent Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which is like an Embassy Suites with no pool or parking lot but a great location, start at eight hundred dollars.”

With this in mind, and knowing I won’t be climbing to “the gringo killer” or probably even scuttling along the spur railroad tracks, neither shall I be a “martini explorer” at Machu Picchu. I might be able to find an affordable room in Cusco, but the train ride from there to Machu Picchu cost Adams and his teenage son some $400 when they did the earlier tourist visit.

I guess now I’d best get cracking on that novel.

[Although this is no forgotten book, nor is it likely to be forgotten for a long long time,--if ever--I nonetheless submit it for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books blog list. After all, there might be someone out there who hasn’t yet considered a trip to Machu Picchu before they kick the bucket. Patti’s list can be found here.]