The Crystal Skull, By Manda Scott

A cracking mystery that uses its head
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The Independent Culture

Tiny in person, Manda Scott deserves some sort of authorial heavyweight-championship belt. Scarcely a year after the final volume of her massive Boudica quartet of historical novels, she bounces back into the ring with her challenge for the Cryptic Treasure Cup of 2008. Will she successfully slug it out with the numerous contenders who have followed in the footsteps of Dan Brown?

The Crystal Skull is a pretty convincing performance. Keen speleologist Dr Stella Cody and her new husband, Kit, discover a blue crystal skull hidden deep below ancient rocks in the Yorkshire Dales. This beautiful, powerful object must be retrieved and re-united with others to save the world from ultimate disaster. Saving the World is always what the Cryptic Treasure Hunt is about, but it's how you tell it that counts. Scott, inspired by a real crystal skull in the British Museum, makes a dashing job of it.

The puzzles multiply. Can we trust the enigmatic Kit? He has fulfilled Stella's dearest wish: to find her a cave with buried treasure, but it's so dangerous that they nearly drown. Who is the enigmatic Cambridge professor who intervenes both in the caving disaster which paralyses Kit, and the unravelling of the mystery of the manuscript? There's always a manuscript, and lovers of the genre will not be disappointed here.

The record takes us back to the 16th century, when Cedric Owen, Cambridge scholar and friend of Nostradamus, sails for the New World and, along with a dashing Spanish sailor, discovers the skull in the Mayan city of Zama. There a powerful and erotic female presence reveals the secrets of the skulls.

When Owen has to amputate his companion's arm, he observes the healing powers of the blue skull and brings it home. The more conventional treasure he acquires forms the basis of Bede's College, and 32 volumes of his works wait to be translated by our sleuths. The skull had to be hidden from enemies, so there is a chase which culminates in Owen's sacrifice for the sake of the mysterious object.

The Elizabethan account is interwoven with the modern narrative, and Scott's experience as a crime writer has stood her in good stead when it comes to the skilled handling of a complex story. She's also good on historical feeling, with a strong grasp of the fearful nature of the Elizabethan world, with its dark side of religious persecution and Machiavellian entrapment. There are atmospheric descriptions of various worlds: scary caverns, Tudor universities, the land of the Mayans. The book is literate, fast-moving, and, most importantly, clearly written for love. Plus: there are no Templars. Our fly-weight has knocked the other contenders out of the ring.