Miriam Wood/Putnam Penguin Random House, $26.00, 453 pages, ISBN 978-0-399-17517-6
Today, in nearly every corner of the world, works of art are being stolen, forged or destroyed by persons of the criminal classes. They are rapacious, greedy, ignorant and uncaring of the fact that their crimes are against all of humanity—for all time—because each piece of art is unique and cannot be replaced. And nowhere is this thievery more prevalent than in the vast unprotected parcels where previous civilizations existed . . . where rarities from cultures long gone might be obtained for nothing more than some trespassing and digging time. The pilfered treasure is sold to unscrupulous dealers or collectors who aren’t concerned by the items lack of provenance. It’s the subject of a fascinating new novel, and the object of this weeks Mysterious Book Report No. 271.
Dancing With The Tiger, by Lili Wright is one of the most impressive debuts of the year—if not the last five or more—and that’s a lotta lotta books folks! Ms. Wright, who teaches English at a Midwestern University, displays an intimate knowledge of Mexico, with a deep understanding of its history, and an affinity for its people, culture and language. She uses that background to take her readers on a noir thrill-ride through the highs and lows of the ways of life down there. And it all starts with a crime . . .
When a meth-addicted looter—trying to find something of value to steal and sell in order to score drugs—digs up what’s believed to be the funerary mask of the last Aztec emperor, it turns the art world on its head. The death mask of Montezuma has been lost for almost five hundred years . . . for so long in fact, that its very existence has been called into question. But now it causes a mad scramble to begin between competing collectors to possess what may be one of the world’s most priceless treasures. The key to it all is authentication, which has to be done by a government official and international art expert. He is, of course, for sale to the highest builder. That leaves a ruthless drug lord, an unscrupulous, wealthy collector and a thirty-ish American woman who’s known for repeatedly making bad personal choices, locked in a life-and-death struggle to have the mask . . . which has disappeared once again, even as the contenders vie for it. Then there’s the lovesick gardener. He’s the married middle-aged man in love, and an adult relationship, with a sexually abused fifteen-year-old shop girl. Although he works for the collector by day, he works for Reyes the drug lord at night. He’s the man in the tiger mask, and a sicario, an assassin, tasked with recovering the mask and killing the tweaker who dug it up.
Those are only the major players in this fascinating, propulsive and endearing first novel that teems with secondary characters, sights, sounds and descriptions so well written they vibrate right off the page and into the readers consciousness. Dancing With The Tiger marks the beginning of a powerful new talent in American fiction. Lili Wright has a lot to say and an authoritative voice to say it with. Personally, I can’t wait to see what she says next!