review by Hal Jacobs
When Miles Harvey chased down the story of Gilbert Bland, a map dealer who built his inventory by stealing rare maps out of old books from libraries, Harvey hoped to get inside the thief's head and explore the dark side. He wanted to discover a "thunderbolt of truth" in the story of a lowlife who successfully penetrated the sheltered little subculture of cartomaniacs. In the end, much to the author's dismay, Bland was bland. Bland, bland, bland.
The formula worked so well a few years ago in the bestselling "The Orchid Thief" by Susan Orlean. Find an obsessive nutcase, then follow him into the world of his mania. Leave no rock, orchid or map unturned. Interview everybody who's anybody in the subculture. Stir up ancient feuds. Drive rental cars to far-away places to unravel one more exotic truth. Spend some quality time analyzing your own tendency to obsess, collect, hoard - isn't that what a writer does? Retain some degree of sanity and objectivity and wit as you revisit your guide, who by now is off on some other nutty adventure.
In "The Orchid Thief," Orlean found the perfect guide and the perfect mix of reporting, charm, and passion.
"The Island of Lost Maps," for all its cartographic virtues, is another story.
Harvey first wrote about the map thief ("Mr. Bland's Evil Plot to Control the World") in the June 1997 issue of Outside magazine. Readers who want to delve into a more succinct description of the case can retrieve that 11-page article from the archives of "Outside online."
The story begins on a cold December afternoon in 1995. A few blocks away from Baltimore's George Peabody Library, security guards catch up with Gilbert Bland and three rare maps he has just sliced out of a 1763 book. Hours later, library officials release Bland on the condition that he reimburse the library for the damages.
If not for a red notebook, the story might have ended there. But when officials looked inside, they found Bland's hit list. Names and locations of rare maps that Bland had either ripped from ancient book bindings or was planning to. The news sent shock waves through the library community.
As the FBI closed in on Bland, map dealers began remembering that the innocuous South Florida dealer always seemed to get maps that no one else could. He also sold them at lower prices. With the market for old maps booming, no one thought to ask why.
Eventually Bland was credited with lifting nearly 250 old maps worth almost half a million. But thanks to plea bargaining and a legal environment that doesn't view book theft as a particularly vile act, Bland served less than 17 months behind bars - sending another shock wave through the library community.
Harvey serves up the Bland story with heapings of anecdotes from a few thousand years of map making. We learn, for instance, that stealing maps is a dishonorable tradition that goes back as far as mapmaking itself. Without a few hot maps, Columbus might never have sailed to the wrong continent.
But all too often the anecdotes, interesting as they are, feel forced into the Bland story with a scattershot approach. By the time Harvey begins communing with dead mapmakers who can guide him in his research, you can almost feel the tremors as a magazine article is stretched into a full-length book.
It's especially annoying when you see other places where you wish Harvey had stretched more. Like when he promises "an adventure" filled with "bemusement and wonder." Or when he says that listening to a self-obsessed map mogul is "like consuming a gallon of espresso in one sitting," but doesn't support his claim with any over-caffeinated evidence.
Of course, it's not Harvey's fault that he wasn't able to get into the head of Bland, who declined to be interviewed for the book. And it might not be Harvey's fault that he didn't get inside the head of anyone close to Bland. But when Harvey talks to neighbors of Bland's, and someone says that the map thief's kid is skateboarding at the end of the block, Harvey drives away rather than risk embarrassing the child, never to return to the neighbors (or the skateboarder). That may be a normal human reaction, but it's disappointing in a true crime writer. Even if the crime is cartographic.
By the time Harvey decides to trust the blank spots in his story -- because they resemble the blank spots in ancient maps -- the reader might not feel quite so generous.
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from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2000