Make way for a new type of action-adventure hero: Father James Bond, S. J. He is the heir to a tradition of espionage that dates back to Elizabethan England, a member of a worldwide corps whose level of devotion is matched only by the average intelligence of its members. They are practically the only spies in the world, one imagines, who take a vow of chastity -- and there the James Bond parallel begins to weaken a little.
That doesn't stop Eugene FitzMaurice in his novel about a Jesuit plan to secure a secret formula for synthetic petroleum and use it as leverage to persuade the United States to outlaw abortion. He simply brings in a few spies (representing various interests) who are not subject to Jesuit vows, and the sex scenes that have become mandatory in this kind of novel can be duly tacked on.
There are a few improbabilities along the way, and a few scenes that Jesuits (or the heirs of Pope Pius XII) might consider libelous. FitzMaurice seems a bit shaky on some subtle theological points such as the principle of double-effect, his Latin is not flawless (it never is in books these days, except for scholarly treatises) and he describes poverty as one of "the traditional priestly vows" rather than a specialized vow for members of religious orders (there is no limit on the potential wealth of secular clergy except for universal ethics and, perhaps, good taste). But if you don't mind an occasional imprecision and some wildly unlikely episodes, he tells a rattling good story, spanning the continents from Russia to Antarctica, with extensive stopovers in the United States, China, England and the Vatican.
It seems that around the turn of the century as Jesuit named Fresnais, a physician at the court of the dowager empress of China, accidentally discovered a formula for synthetic petroleum while looking for a cure for syphilis. He was working on this project because the empress (by most accounts, one of the most depraved rulers since Caligula) was trying to kill her son through exposure to that disease -- a process in which he cooperated willingly though unwittingly.
Knowing that he had a hot item (although not the hot item he had been seeking), the reverend researcher set in motion a complicated plot to smuggle the formula out of China and into the Vatican. Unfortunately, the ship carrying the formula suffered damages on the way home, was picked up by a storm and found itself, finally, wrecked on the shores of Antarctica, where the precious cargo remained for most of a century, hidden on the frozen body of the leader of the expedition, Sir Basil Hawkeland.
The book opens "late in this century" with a variety of powers who are aware of this treasure plotting to get their hands on it. Expeditions are launched toward the South Pole, and the familiar combination of foreplay and gunplay begins, climaxing some 300 pages later in a shootout among three Chinese agents who all turn out to be Jesuit spies of various kinds. It reads better in book-length than it does in summary.
Beyond the standard trappings of action-suspense, which he handles at a decent, professional level of expertise, FitzMaurice offers several added incentives to the prospective reader. One is a sort of book-within-a-book, the memoirs of Peter the Painter, a Russian anarchist of the late 19th century who (by a process much too complex to be detailed here) becomes a part of the saga of the secret formula. Peter's story is by far the best part of "The Hawkeland Cache," occupying nearly half its length and splendidly varied in its contents: anarchist intrigue in the waning years of czarist Russia, a daring escape from prison, intricate plots, decadence and exquisite cruelty at the court of China, and finally a doomed search for shelter on the bleak Antarctic continent. It is high adventure in a grand manner that is no longer fashionable, and that is a pity.
Another inducement, scattered throughout the book's pages, is a disorganized but colorful and readable set of fragments from the history of the Jesuits. It is surely one of the most extraordinary organizations in the history of the world, a group splendid even in failure, which it has suffered often. Two of its alumni who must be considered failures in Jesuit terms are Voltaire and James Joyce; its successes (both deferred successes, as must often be the case for those who are head of their time) include the most interesting poet of Victorian England, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and one of the most fascinating scientists of the 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who figures briefly and enigmatically in theplot of "The Hawkeland Cache."
FitzMaurice focuses mainly on the Jesuits as a force in political history -- the organizers of a utopian society in Latin America, crusaders against slavery in a world where slavery was integral to the economy, manipulators of the world's economy and infiltrators extraordinary at the court of Imperial China. Parts of his treatment are speculative and parts are clearly fictional, but some of the most unbelievable passages (the Latin American episode, for example) are quite accurate. Clearly, an adventure novel is not the ideal way to learn about most of these things, but their presence in this adventure novel gives it an added dimension.