August 11, 2014

Book Review: The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

If you like details, you might remember that The Map Thief made the short list for my Best Books of the Year (So Far). I just realized that I never really reviewed it here though - I only made reference a couple of times to how much I liked it.

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps delves into the international rare-map community (which is fairly small), and hones in on the life of E. Forbes Smiley III -- one of the most well-known and respected dealers. Smiley had been involved in the business since the early 1980s and his knowledge of maps pertaining to the settling of the American continent was second to none. For many years he helped wealthy clients build staggering collections.

But his public bonhomie hid a dark secret: he was chronically short of cash. Over the years, as more of his checks bounced, more dealers became wary. But no one suspected that in order to cover his debts Smiley would do the unthinkable: he started stealing maps from institutions all over the world, sometimes slicing maps out of books four and five centuries old.

Much like Miles Harvey's The Island of Lost Maps, The Map Thief tells the tale of a man who got away with his theft for years. What makes Smiley so diabolical is that, as an esteemed map expert, he knew exactly which maps would garner the highest prices. He stole maps worth millions of dollars, decimating library collections in the process.

Michael Blanding (The Coke Machine) has compiled interviews with Smiley's friends and colleagues, FBI agents, librarians and even Smiley himself to piece together a portrait of a desperate man. A gripping mix of true crime, cartographic lore and bookish obsession, The Map Thief is a book that map and book lovers will devour, even as they cringe at the crimes described.

I was probably the perfect target for The Map Thief (since I like true crime and I love geography -- I enjoyed The Island of Lost Maps a few years ago), but I think it's a fascinating read even if true crime and geography aren't favorites of yours. It's the perfect summery kind of nonfiction: fascinating, informative, but not difficult or dense.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? Absolutely!

Do you read nonfiction in the summer?

I originally wrote most of this review for Shelf Awareness, and the post contains some of my affiliate links. Thanks for supporting Quirky Bookworm!