Malta Exchange

Malta Exchange

Let’s play historical supposition. Suppose, for instance, that sequestered among Lyndon B. Johnson’s files exists a letter between him and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Or that somewhere in Tokyo, evidence details the executions of pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in the presence of Emperor Hirohito.

Better yet, check out Steve Berry’s “The Malta Exchange,” the 14th novel in his series of historical thrillers featuring Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone, a now-retired Justice Department agent.

This installment begins with Malone working a freelance job for Great Britain in Italy. His task: Buy a group of letters between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that could embarrass the government and Churchill’s family.

Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1940, Churchill wrote to Mussolini to seek his assurance that Italy would stay neutral and not join Germany in the Axis; in return, in the peace talks after the Allies’ victory, Britain would cede Malta to Italy.

But someone else wants the collection in the hope that Mussolini also possessed clues that would lead to the Nostra Trinità, a document dating to the 4th-century reign of Emperor Constantine, who gave his blessing to the Christian Church.

Among the other seekers of the Mussolini papers are Luke Daniels, an American intelligence operative who knows Malone; Luke’s boss, Stephanie Nelle; Cardinal Kastor Gallo, an ultraconservative who wants to be elected pope at a conclave set to start soon; his identical twin, Pollux Gallo, the temporary head of the Knights of Malta; Archbishop Danjel Spagna, who wields power over Vatican intelligence; and Laura Price, a Maltese intelligence agent.

With differing and sometimes hidden agendas, the hunters find themselves in a web of betrayal, deception and murder as the conclave that could change the trajectory of the church approaches.

Berry, whose storytelling bona fides have won him millions of readers, structures this plot with intelligence and populates it with heroes and villains. What results is a tale of corruption and ambition, courage and aversion.

A student of history who expertly blends fact with imaginative and fully plausible fiction, Berry again produces a novel that at once entertains and also raises deep and disturbing questions.

Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida.

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