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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson

July 1, 2017

Grand Central Publishing:  New York City
2016 (pb)

First-time author Jacquelyn Benson has offered up an entertaining adventure yarn that is derivative of the Amelia Peabody novels, Indiana Jones movies (the author herself acknowledges a debt of gratitude to Indy!), and the countless potboilers detailing searches for lost cities, lost civilizations, and lost treasure.

Her heroine is Eleanora Mallory—otherwise known as Ellie—a late 19th century Londoner, who militantly supports the women’s suffrage movement, is University of London-trained in archaeology and the classics, who yearns for adventure, and is in real life a low-level clerk in the Public Records Office.  Her life changes forever when she discovers a hollowed-out book in her curmudgeonly boss’s office.  The book contains a crude map and a medallion, which she promptly steals—temporarily, she assures herself—to assess its historical genuineness.  In reality, she filches the book because her boss has just sacked her for getting arrested in a suffragette protest—a most unseemly activity for a proper Victorian Era lady!

Her researches in the Reading Room of the British Library lead her to believe that she has stumbled upon clues left by a 17th Century Dominican missionary to the New World—clues that could lead to a lost “White City” in the jungles of what was British Honduras (today’s Belize)—a city that may be the source of the legendary El Dorado!  But it quickly becomes obvious to Ellie that other sinister forces are on to her and her discoveries and that her very life may be in danger.  So she takes the only obvious option:  she assumes a false identity and books a solo passage to British Honduras to discover the White City and make her name as an archaeologist.  To her dismay, shortly after checking into the Imperial Hotel in Belize City, she realizes that the bad guys are hot on her trail.

Fortunately, after several stormy interpersonal mis-steps, she joins forces with a hunky American archaeologist named Adam Bates,   who agrees to guide her into the jungle in search of the lost city.  Naturally, the sinister forces are not far behind.  The balance of the novel follows the two intrepid adventurers as they penetrate the dark and menacing Central American jungle on their quest—and their eventual discovery of the fabled White City.  Perhaps not surprisingly, along the way Ellie and Adam begin to find each other rather attractive and lust gives way to true love.

But within its confines, the city holds an ancient secret that would drive desperate men to desperate measures to discover—the apocryphal Smoking Mirror of Maya and Aztec cosmology.  The quest for this fabled artifact also drives Adam and Ellie to take an untold number of hair-raising risks in the caverns beneath the city’s central pyramid.

While the author does rely on the ODTAA school of story-telling (One Damn Thing After Another), she does it with great confidence and gusto.  This novel is a great deal of fun, and while it demands great dollops of suspension of disbelief as the reader follows  the improbable adventures of Ellie and Adam, it is worth the effort.  And perhaps best of all, the author leaves little doubt that our adventurers have more exploits in store for them in future volumes.

Three trowels for the old-fashioned potboiler, The Smoke Hunter.