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Onyx reviews: The Nautical Chart by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Manual Coy is happiest when the nearest solid ground is ten miles behind him. Sailing has been his life; he is adrift on dry land when his Merchant Marine license is removed after a marine accident occurs during his watch.

Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he ends up at an auction of nautical objects. Coy's interest is piqued when two bidders engage in a fierce battle over a century-old atlas. He is especially interested in one of the bidders, a stunningly attractive woman who possesses an aura of fierce determination.

Shortly after the auction, Coy stumbles across the two bidders in the street. The man—later revealed to be Nino Palermo—acts threateningly, so Coy intervenes, though he is neither a brave nor a violent man. Thus he meets the beautiful and intriguing Tánger Soto and becomes embroiled in her quest—the search for the Dei Gloria, a Jesuit ship that sank in the Mediterranean in the mid-1700s.

Tánger beguiles Coy. He wants to count her freckles. He is out of his depth with her, he knows, but—like a swimmer caught in a riptide—he cannot help himself. Tánger dribbles out information, never telling more than necessary to keep Coy hooked. Coy, an expert navigator learned in the ancient ways of reckoning, is familiar with the vagaries of 18th century techniques of specifying marine location. Tánger has the exact latitude and longitude at which the Dei Gloria sank, but those numbers meant something different in 1767 and the duo sets out on a scholarly mission to translate them into modern values.

All the while, they must deal with rival Palermo, a man famous for plundering other marine excavations, and his lethal assistant Horacio Kiskoros, a knife-wielding Argentinean dwarf. Palermo warns Coy about Tánger and tries to entice him to become a double agent.

Coy, though not intellectual, is well read and regards his life through literary references, all of them nautical: Melville and Joseph Conrad. He's a jazz aficionado. His life's soundtrack is the music of Charlie Bird, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk.

He is also familiar with The Maltese Falcon, and knows how similar his situation is to that Hammett classic, rife with betrayal and double-dealing. Author Arturo Pérez-Reverte is also aware of the similarities, casting Palermo as the Fatman from the movie version, complete with halting, occasionally explosive, speech patterns and slimy nature.

It takes over half the book for anyone to get wet, so The Nautical Chart is only partly a seafaring adventure. Pérez-Reverte takes his time, building suspense as Coy gets in deeper over his head, suspicious of Tánger's motives but unable to extricate himself from her. She is the siren upon whose rocks he is destined to crash, it seems.

Even in translation (from the original Spanish), Pérez-Reverte's prose sings. This is literary adventure at its finest. The author takes long paragraphs to paint setting and emotion, something many modern writers eschew. His indulgence creates a lush and lavish novel that proceeds at its own pace, luxuriating in detail.

If this novel had been published in North America, editors would probably have tried to cut or condense huge sections of the first half. Thankfully this did not happen. The Nautical Chart is like a Merchant-Ivory movie, fully immersed in mood, setting and character. The story carries Coy, Tánger, Palermo and the others along, deliberately and surely toward their inevitable confrontation over the wreck of the Dei Gloria as surely as Sam Spade, Cairo, the Fatman and Bridget would end up meeting around the table in front of the Maltese falcon.

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