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THE SATURDAY READ

A clever sleuth seeks Aztec gold

The King's Gold An Old World Novel of Adventure Yxta Maya Murray Harper: 422 pp., $14.95 paper

May 31, 2008|Nicholas A. Basbanes | Special to The Times

It's AWFULLY hard not to respect a resourceful young bookseller who describes herself as a "genuine biblio-adventurer," especially one who places her forthcoming marriage on hold and sets off for Italy, of all places, in search of Aztec gold.

To be fair, Lola Sanchez, the central character of "The King's Gold," does not accept at first the proposition put forth to her by a shadowy man she learns in time is the son of a former adversary -- in fact she is unceremoniously hauled away kicking and screaming to take on the task.

But the prospect of applying her special deductive skills to solve the tantalizing riddles contained in a 16th century letter proves irresistible all the same, especially when Sanchez is told that her biological father, a larger-than-life archaeologist named Tomas de la Rosa, died while trying to solve this puzzle.

Like all novels of a genre that places old books and documents at the heart of the narrative, the basic premise put forth in Yxta Maya Murray's newest work is based on a tantalizing detail from the past and involves the deciphering of a formidable set of codes and clues.

When conquistador Hernan Cortes vanquished Montezuma's empire in 1521, he and his men are said to have seized a stockpile of gold, most of it lost through a variety of stupid and selfish blunders.

The letter shown to Sanchez, purportedly written in 1554 by Antonio Medici, an Italian member of the Cortes party, to his nephew, Cosimo II, duke of Florence, offers spitefully bizarre directions to locating the hoard.

"I do own a vast, bloodstained, and secret treasure, which I bartered for my soul," the letter reads, which Sanchez is able to translate from the old Italian. "I leave it to you. I bequeath my Yellow Mettle with a condition, however. You must first solve my Puzzle." The letter makes clear that Antonio detested Cosimo, which is why the clues are not only extremely difficult but also fraught with all sorts of dangers -- centuries-old booby-traps, possible exposure to deadly curses and toxic fumes, even hints of alchemy and werewolves.

Sanchez made her debut three years ago in "The Queen Jade," the first installment in what Murray, a Loyola Law School professor, calls the "Red Lion" series, so named for the Long Beach bookshop where her 32-year-old heroine had once been content to lead the life of a "sedentary, word-mad bibliophile."

A romp like this, of course, is only as good as its characters, and Murray draws heavily on the lively cast she introduced in "The Queen Jade," most notably Sanchez's spirited fiance, Erik Gomara, along with her mother, half-sister and stepfather, all of whom make their way to Italy, where the major action unfolds. Just as compelling are the author's colorful descriptions of the four cities that take center stage in the unfolding drama, Florence, Siena, Rome and Venice, magical places that become principal figures in their own right.

With continued talk about mythical creatures, magical potions, alchemic experiments and inexplicably lost fathers, not to mention a series of miraculous coincidences, mystical riddles and the like, there's the underlying threat of a story going completely out of control. But Murray does a pretty nifty job of pulling it all together at the end, with a credible resolution that actually makes sense.

"The King's Gold" stands well enough on its own, though events that were chronicled in "The Queen Jade" weigh heavily on what unfolds here; to her credit, Murray fills in a lot of the blanks where necessary, and even leaves a few questions unanswered for the next round of Lola Sanchez's unconventional sleuthing. Indeed, as the novel comes to a close, she is packing her bags and her books for what is sure to be another foray in biblio-adventuring. "So delightfully tricky," she says at one point, a sentiment that could well apply to the "Red Lion" series itself.

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Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author, most recently, of "Editions & Impressions: Twenty Years on the Book Beat" and the forthcoming "A World of Letters: Yale University Press, 1908-2008."

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