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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

A Tourist in the Yucatan by James McNay Brumfield

March 1, 2007

Tres Picos Press:  Watsonville, CA
2004 (pb)

This conspiracy thriller caught my attention for a couple of reasons—neither of which was the intended plot per se.  In brief, we read of the unfolding of a diabolical plot hatched at the highest levels of U.S. governmental circles to enable a wealthy Mexican industrialist to corner the market on drug smuggling into the United States.  Twists and turns in the story leave us wondering—at least for awhile—who is conspiring against whom and ultimately, can one burned-out soon-to-be-retired federal agent bring the conspirators to justice before he joins the growing list of dead men who failed to unravel the plot before it was too late for them.

An odd plot-line for a review of supposedly archaeology-based novels, you say?  Yes, but only on the surface for A Tourist in the Yucatan weaves within its drug-smuggling conspiracy plot two interesting sub-texts.  The first involves an exciting treatment of the Vacation in Paradise that turns into the Vacation in Hell.  A young American couple, Jack and Jo Phillips, are vacationing in the Yucatan Peninsula, hoping to revive the marriage that has grown tepid and strained.  From the beaches of Isla Mujeres to the splendor of the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, Jack and Jo seem to be succeeding in their quest to revive their romance.  They meet up with another charming American tourist named Steve Potter, whose knowledge of Mexican archaeology makes their travels even more enjoyable—at least until Steve turns up brutally murdered and Jo is kidnapped!  Steve, it turns out, was wanted by Mexican law enforcement for drug-smuggling and multiple killings—but he also seems to have been hunted by U.S. officials as a deeply undercover DEA agent who had perhaps gone over to the dark side.  And it seems as if he may have been targeted by a Mexican drug cartel for being an undercover narcotics agent who had not turned!

As Jack desperately hunts for his missing wife, he finds himself the target of a manhunt staged by Mexican Federales who seem to be in the pocket of the Cartel.  Simultaneously seeking his wife’s whereabouts and hiding from the police, Jack seeks shelter at an archaeological excavation at Coba, a major Mayan site, and becomes an accidental participant in an earth-shaking discovery that would rival the unearthing of Pacal’s sarcophagus at Palenque. Brumfield very cleverly works this sub-plot—which, by the way, includes some very accurate descriptions of the archaeological process—back into his main plot of drug cartels and corrupt politics on both sides of the Rio Grande.

This is an entertaining thriller—not exactly John Le Carre, but fun nonetheless—that includes some interesting archaeology and some very vivid descriptions of cities and sites of the Yucatan.  However, if you are planning to vacation in Mexico anytime soon, you may want to put off reading this little gem until you return home safely!

It’s not great writing (an editor could help here!) and not a particularly innovative plot, but still a guilty pleasure to read.  Three trowels because of the archaeology!