Arturo Perez-Reverte, , trans. from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. . Harcourt, $26 (480pp) ISBN 978-0-15-100534-5

Popular Spanish novelist Pérez-Reverte (The Fencing Master; The Club Dumas) is known as "the master of the intellectual thriller." But his customarily skillful blend of pop erudition and conscious borrowing of literary precedents threatens to capsize this tale of a race to retrieve a fortune in emeralds that sank off the Mediterranean coast of Spain in 1767. Manuel Coy is now in the Conrad phase of his life, having previously lived a Stevenson period and a Melville period. He is a "sailor exiled from the sea," his pilot's license suspended for two years after he ran a merchant ship onto an uncharted rock in the Indian Ocean. Attending an auction of nautical relics in Barcelona (in his "Lord Jim jacket"), Coy watches a beautiful young blonde woman outmaneuver a menacing ponytailed man to purchase a 17th-century nautical chart of the Spanish coast by Urrutia Salcedo. The woman is Tánger Soto, of Madrid's Museo Naval; the ponytailed man is a famed pirate of sea salvage, Nino Palermo. Coy comes to Tánger's defense when he sees her being threatened outside the auction house by Palermo—thus putting himself in the service of a woman he is sure will eventually betray him. The characters are only too aware of the affinities of their story with The Maltese Falcon, and with a whole library of sea literature. Pérez-Reverte is too accomplished a novelist to write a truly dull book, and the underwater sequences that climax the story are masterfully done. But any sea adventure that is more than half over before it makes it to the sea has to be in some kind of trouble. (Oct.)

Forecast:This may not be Pérez-Reverte at his best, but his second-best will be more than good enough for most readers. A first printing of 125,000 copies and a five-city author tour are in the works.