Wednesday, April 24, 2024

112613i-Cana-MysteryMuch of David Beckett’s “The Cana Mystery” will be familiar to fans of “The Da Vinci Code,” including its academic heroes, historical puzzles, religious arcana, wide-ranging conspiracies and high stakes. Some of it will be even more familiar to Cantabrigians, especially those intimate with Harvard Square: The heroes of the book at various points in the novel, for instance, eat at Le’s Vietnamese in The Garage, order in from Spice Thai, drink espresso at the Algiers and go running for their life through the Old Burying Ground.

Beckett obviously doesn’t stint on his research – he’s copped to at least one “snobby rant, listing errors and deficiencies in ‘The Da Vinci Code’” – whether it’s about the Catholic Church (the novel was published by Wellesley’s Tuscany Press, which is “dedicated to great Catholic books”), the machinery, vehicles and weaponry used to defend and attack the good guys or the geography of countries such as Egypt, Malta, Rome and Yemen – or, for that matter, Cambridge. In touting the book, the author and his wife and publicist, Catherine O’Gorman, are able to rattle off at least a dozen restaurants and other Cambridge sites mentioned, a half-dozen streets and another half-dozen Harvard-specific locations encountered in the action.

It’s thrilling to read about hairbreadth escape from death in Egypt’s Shubra Khit, but for the same sort of person who buys an “02138: The world’s most opinionated ZIP code” T-shirt at the Montrose Spa, this kind of passage is likely just as much of a kick:

Ava skidded to a stop and and secured her bike outside Lowell House. As she cut across the interior courtyard, her eyes lingered on a favorite tree, a majestic giant growing directly in front of the main entrance. Its tallest branches reach three stories; its lowest swept the ground. Each October it turned a brilliant gold, as if touched by Midas. Smiling, Ava crossed Mount Auburn, made for Dunster Street, turned right onto Mass. Ave. and ducked into Au Bon Pain …

That’s probably not why the book reached No. 1 on Amazon’s Kindle list last month, with more than 60,000 readers downloading it over the course of a two-day promotion, O’Gorman said, and sold out Amazon’s inventory of physical copies in less than a week. (November sales continued to go well, the couple said.) But since Beckett is a University of Texas at Austin grad who lives in Terrell Hills, Texas, it’s worth asking how he came by what seems like firsthand knowledge (with a couple of hiccups or examples of dramatic license) of Harvard Square.

Texas writer David Beckett was able to make Cambridge a major part of his first novel with help from his wife, a Harvard alum.

Texas writer David Beckett was able to make Cambridge a major part of his first novel with help from his wife, a Harvard alum.

In large part, it’s thanks to O’Gorman, who graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 2002 and taught at the summer school long before her work with Beckett. She “told him about many of her old haunts; he incorporated them into the book as a tribute.” A specific homeless man that frequented Harvard Square during her college days even gets a mention.

After the manuscript was accepted for publication, they came to Cambridge to meet with the publisher and visited places mentioned in the book, she said. “Sadly, some had closed,” with Tommy’s Famous House of Pizza getting a sentence worth of mourning in the novel. “Because one of Mr. Beckett’s primary goals was to make ‘The Cana Mystery’ as realistic as possible,” O’Gorman said, “he then rewrote some Cambridge scenes to more accurately reflect the current city.”

The novel has attributes beyond a slavish devotion to Harvard Square geography. Since publication July 10, it’s gotten 104 ratings on Goodreads totaling 4.24 stars out of five; on Amazon, which owns Goodreads, 130 reviews average out to four stars out of five, with by the far most reviews in the five-star category. Readers like the “believable adventure with true-to-life characters who are obviously not embarrassed by their intelligence,” the “fast-moving, almost movie-like, chase that keeps the reader turning pages” and “engaging specifics and descriptors [that] amplify the storyline and draw the reader to identify with the angst, tension and frustrations of the main characters as they try to survive a deadly game of cat and mouse.”

Mostly unmentioned is the ripped-from-the-headlines feel Beckett gives “The Cana Mystery” by incorporating the March 13 anointment of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, replacing Pope Benedict XVI after his resignation a month earlier. From real-life news to publication was only about four months.

That helps make Beckett’s first novel an interesting holiday gift option for fans of Catholic esoterica, Dan Brown and globe-trotting thrillers in general, but it also can help a very specific kind of book collector – those who need Cambridge as a setting in their genre reading – fill the space on their shelves besides such works as Lisa Gardner’s “Live to Tell,” Patricia Cornwell’s “The Bone Bed” and Robert B. Parker’s “Thin Air.”

Beckett’s website is here.