Headline | 2016 | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is London 1898 and Eleonora (Ellie) Mallory was born at the wrong time. She might have a degree from the University of London but it counts for almost nothing in this man’s world. What she really wants to be doing is fulfilling her ambitious archaeological dreams, just like her cousin Neil who is currently digging up Egyptian ruins, but she’s had to settle for an archivist job in London and even that looks like it’s about to come to an end thanks to her recent arrest – Ellie is a proud suffragette. But as Ellie sits in her boss’s office waiting to be sacked she notices an old psalter amongst the mess of papers scattered around his desk and in it is an unusual medallion and what appears to be a map to a lost ‘white’ city hidden away in the jungles of central America. Ellie cannot resist it, nor its lure of adventure.
But Ellie is not the only one after the map and when it brings trouble to her home she does something extraordinary. In disguise, Ellie runs into the night and boards a ship bound for central America, for excitement, adventure, riches, independence, jungles, snakes, evil traps, villains and murderers, a potentially agonising death, and handsome maverick archaeologist Adam Bates.
The Smoke Hunter is a lot of fun. A relatively long novel, its pages are packed to the gills with the promise of adventure and freedom for this young woman who fights against the rules of the age and gender. The prologue sets the scene perfectly, evoking the mysterious lost civilisation that Ellie is so intent on rediscovering. The novel is reminiscent of gloriously fun archaeology movies set in the golden days of exploration, such as Indiana Jones and the Mummy films. Ellie is described so well, her thoughts and dreams as well as her frustration and inner rage, that she is easy to picture.
I think that for me, though, there are too many occasions when Ellie pretends that she isn’t swooning over Adam’s strong biceps or his handsome face. They seem to surprise each other in various states of undress on a regular basis and Ellie’s underclothes have a habit of clinging to her when they’re wet. Adam himself seems a rather familiar character type and I also found their continual misunderstandings rather waring and predictable. The main issue for me on reflection is that Ellie seems out of time. She doesn’t ring true as a young woman of 1898 and neither does her friend Constance.
All of this is probably me taking a light historical adventure far too seriously. The Smoke Hunter is undoubtedly entertaining and, as Ellie and Adam try to stay one step ahead of the baddies while solving the enigmatic mystery of the smoking mirror (not to mention a bunch of death traps), it offers hours of escapist pleasure – no bad thing in these grim times and that was a big reason why I was drawn to it. It certainly cheered me up and I looked forward to picking it up each day, never quite sure what would happen next in the dangerously enticing jungle.