Up Close: Steve Berry
Mussolini, Churchill, and the Vatican
Blend in New Cotton Malone Thriller
By R. G. Belsky
Benito Mussolini. Winston Churchill. And a present-day Vatican conclave to elect a new pope. These are the unlikely plot elements that Steve Berry masterfully blends together in THE MALTA EXCHANGE—his 14th in the bestselling Cotton Malone thriller series.
It starts out with Malone on the trail of legendary letters between Mussolini and Churchill that disappeared in 1945. But that quickly turns into a search for a lost document from the fourth century, involving Constantine the Great, that could determine the election of the next pope.
And—like all of Berry’s Cotton Malone novels—the fiction in THE MALTA EXCHANGE is very much inspired by real history.
“The niche I’ve carved for myself,” Berry says, “is that 90 percent of what I put in a story is historically accurate. The fiction part comes from how I put those elements together.”
In the hunt for the mysterious fourth century document, former Justice Department operative Cotton Malone—along with younger agent Luke Daniels—must deal with a rogue cardinal who will go to any lengths to obtain what he believes can make him pope: the Secreti—an ancient sect (which is real) intent on affecting the coming papal conclave; and the legendary Knights of Malta, a group of warrior-monks who have existed for more than 900 years. Berry says his idea for the plot of THE MALTA EXCHANGE began with the Constantine the Great document and what secrets it might reveal about the origins of the Catholic Church.
“That document is fictional,” Berry says. “But what it contains is historically accurate.”
During his research, Berry read about the legendary Mussolini/Churchill letters—which may have been taken north by Mussolini when he tried to flee Italy in 1945. But he was captured and executed, and everything he had with him disappeared.
“No one knows if those letters even exist,” Berry says. “Which is perfect for me. Mussolini enjoyed a unique relationship with the Catholic Church. They basically stayed out of his way and allowed him to rule Italy with an iron fist. Why was he able to get away with what he did? Nobody really knows. Which, again, is perfect for me. The Knights of Malta also had a special relationship with the church, and they’re still going strong 900 years later. The weaving together of these seemingly unrelated threads made the plot. Then I allowed it all to happen with the backdrop of a papal conclave.”
There’s some serious character development in THE MALTA EXCHANGE too. Much of the book deals with the evolution of Malone and his relationship with Luke Daniels, a younger Magellan Billet operative introduced several books ago.
“Luke is becoming more competent,” Berry says. “Less impetuous. In fact, in this book, it’s Cotton who makes a mistake and Luke catches him. A bit of a role reversal. Characters in a series have to evolve. They need to change and grow. Otherwise things become stale for both the writer and reader.”
Also appearing is series regular Stephanie Nelle, Cotton’s ex-boss, and there are numerous references to—but no appearance by—Cotton’s love interest, Cassiopeia Vitt.
“Not in this novel,” Berry says about Vitt. “I wanted to explore Luke and Cotton here.”
Because his fiction is heavily based on real history, Berry spends a great deal of time doing research. He devotes 18 months to each book, between both the research and the writing, and utilizes around 400 sources for information. Then there are the trips associated with that preparation.
“[My wife] Elizabeth and I went to Lake Como and traveled the route Mussolini took trying to escape, visiting the actual execution site,” Berry says. “Then we made two trips to Malta. Everything that’s in the novel, I visited.”
The Catholic Church is front and center in The MALTA EXCHANGE, with lots of unsavory things described. Does Berry think that’s an accurate portrayal?
“Religion is created by man, managed by man, and changed by man. If man is doing it, it is going to be flawed,” he says. “The financial corruption within the Vatican noted in the book is real. I didn’t make it up. The waste, fraud, and abuse is institutionalized to the point that it’s impossible to change. Popes have tried and tried, to no avail. The reader is going to be surprised to learn what’s in the story.”
Berry’s internationally bestselling books have been translated into 40 languages with over 24 million copies in 51 countries. But all this success didn’t come overnight. For many years Berry was a successful lawyer and also a political figure, holding elected office for 14 years. “I didn’t write my first word until I was 35. Why did I start? A little voice in my head told me to write. Every writer has that little voice. I ignored it for 10 years, then I finally listened.”
He wrote eight manuscripts over the next 12 years, five of which were submitted to New York publishing houses and rejected a total of 85 times. It was on the 86th try that he sold his first book, The Amber Room (published in 2003). Cotton Malone was born in 2006 with The Templar Legacy. His phenomenally popular character came to him one day while he was sitting at a cafe in Copenhagen. “He just popped in my brain and I jotted down all of his particulars on a napkin. When I got back home, I wrote The Templar Legacy.”
“I kept the napkin,” he says with a laugh, adding there’s a special Barnes & Noble edition of THE MALTA EXCHANGE available now, with a picture of that napkin included.
But Berry does more than just write about history. He and his wife Elizabeth created History Matters, a foundation dedicated to the preservation of endangered historical treasures. For the past 10 years they’ve traveled around the country raising, so far, $1.5 million for historic preservation.
“Cotton’s headed to Poland,” Berry says. “I’ve been wanting to do an adventure there for a long time. It’s called The Warsaw Protocol and will be out in Spring 2020.”
- Up Close: Kathy Reichs - August 1, 2022
- On the Cover: Tess Gerritsen - June 30, 2022
- International Thrills: James Swallow - May 31, 2022