By the first paragraph of Matthew J. Glavin's new book, "Adirondack Treasure: The Bonaparte Legacy," we know there's been a murder. By the middle of the first chapter, we know there's treasure hidden on land contested by developers and environmentalists. By the end of the chapter, we know the book promises more than your standard who-done-it novel.
Joseph Benton and Alicia LaCroix are romantically-involved nutcases. Joseph is a run-of-the-mill mountain crazy: middle aged, alcoholic, obsessed with an ancient treasure map, and lives alone with a beloved cat. He's invested $2 million in a development project at Big Tupper. He's secretive and mistrusts even his best friend - the level-headed cop Jerry Doolin. For all that, he's still sort of cute.
Alicia is an attorney for Adirondack Environmental Watch, a group fighting development of the Big Tupper Resort. She's just as unhinged as Benton, but motivated by environmental preservation instead of crackpot fantasy. She's beautiful, canny, proud and we're led to distrust her from the start.
Glavin weaves these characters, and a broad cast of others, into a book that is part mystery and treasure hunt, but mostly an incisive challenge to whatever you think about the environmentalist movement in the Adirondack Park.
In its best moments, "Adirondack Treasure: The Bonaparte Legacy" feels like a good yarn shared between old neighbors. The plotting is simple though often excellently paced - Glavin measures out his hints carefully in the first half of the book. By the halfway point, the story is ready to wind down. A chain of climactic scenes carries on too long and a ponderous property law case takes up more space than the gunfight and arrest of the murderous villain.
That noted, the book is a fast-paced read that will appeal primarily to those who live in the Park and recognize its landmarks and tensions. Glavin is a good storyteller who knows and loves the setting of his novel. He makes a point of precisely locating each scene. For example, Benton says over dinner:
" imagine a compass heading of about 125 degrees and about five miles away. You can't miss it. You can see it from the road. It's unmistakable!"
Jerry sat silent for a moment thinking about the view from Route 3 near the current dams. "Not Big Tupper?"
This exchange makes sense only if the reader follows Jerry's mental image. To an audience who can picture the view toward Tupper Lake from the Piercefield bridge or pick out Tail O' the Pup on a satellite image, this kind of thing is useful, even necessary information. Unfortunately, an outsider will be adrift in the profuse references to local geography.
Apart from the geographic specificity, up-to-date readers will recognize the novel's central plot point - development at the Big Tupper Ski Area. Glavin is unflinching in his embrace of this current event. Big Tupper and its recent expansion frame the book's pivotal problem - environmentalist versus developer. And, though Glavin's version is almost entirely fictional, the polarities strike close to home. It's not just abstract environmentalists and developers anymore - this book is about all of us who live in or care about the Adirondacks.
As in the actual decision, all sides invest more than money in the outcome; projects like Big Tupper divide friends on an almost spiritual level. The real-life divisions are neither as distinct nor as cogent as Glavin suggest - pro-development, law-abiding, working-class folks aren't always at odds with vigilante, criminal environmentalists from away. And when they are, prominent judges rarely denounce the environmentalists from the bench. The Big Tupper case's presiding judge says:
"You have your deity the wilderness As the high priestess of the church of radical environmentalism in the Adirondacks, you are convinced of your moral and ethical superiority - no need for codes ... One does not expect objective rational behavior from religious zealots, one expects devotion at the extreme. Radical environmentalists like you need the environment. The environment doesn't need environmentalists like you."
By focusing so completely on the Big Tupper case, Glavin downplays the bread and butter of most mystery novels. The murder, plodding law enforcement, and heroic flashes of insight that ultimately solve the crime are all there, they just take second fiddle to some deep philosophical questions. The book cuts deeply into our prejudices, rarely in a comfortable way.
Joseph's dream of family treasure is, of course, realized at the end of the novel. The cute crazy guy gets millions in family treasure, and the terrible villain is packed away for life in prison. The villain is also an environmental dreamer, and her dreams get similar treatment. Life in prison might be too soft a sentence for the radical green movement, the novel seems to suggest.
As appealing as Joseph Benton's family Bible - complete with coded messages and maps to Bonaparte treasure might be, it isn't compelling enough for us to indict a whole political movement. Regardless of your personal views, the novel's success is in questioning the reach of both sides. Though one camp gets uncomfortably short shrift, the book asks us to re-examine them both.
With some deep, goading questions and precise attention to the place and feel of the Adirondacks, "The Bonaparte Legacy" is a good first installment of Glavin's trilogy. His next offering, "Isle Royal," promises a similar mix of charged current events (think al-Qaeda and Libyan freighters in the St. Lawrence Seaway), and breathless treasure hunting, all couched in hard Adirondack fact.
Matthew J. Glavin self-published "Adirondack Treasure: The Bonaparte Legacy" through Pyramid Publishing Services in Utica.
This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.