No, not the 2008 film (though that too has a crystal skull-based storyline): I’m talking about the 1995 book by Max McCoy, which Bantam have just (May 2008) reissued apropos of nothing (apart from perhaps trying to surf the wave of the film’s gigantic marketing spend?)
The Voynich Manuscript makes its appearance very early on (p.27, actually the first page of Chapter 1): McCoy manages to present its history very lightly and not bog the reader down in too many details. But as the book is set in 1933, there wasn’t a whole UFO angle to cover (or other such modern confections). Instead, you get a little bit of Newbold, Bacon, alchemy, Major John M. Manly (!!!), John Dee, Kelley, the Shew Stone, and even a quick reference to Wilfrid Voynich in New York: basically, everything moves briskly along in the kind of proper screenplay-like way you’d hope from an Indy novel. Yes, there’s even the occasional snake (for readers playing Indy buzzword bingo, I guess).
I’ll admit it: I was charmed by the book. It’s small (293 pocket-size pages), no larger than you’d imagine a Japanese commuter squeezing into a pocket, and reads so quickly that at some points (most notably in the end sequence past the oasis) I deliberately closed my eyes to slow the pace down so that I could properly picture the scene in my mind.
Historically, the book has a deliciously light touch throughout, in particular when Indy and his companion are improbably rescued by an elderly French couple called Nicholas and Peronelle (p.200) – and if you can’t work out who they are by that stage in the story, you very possibly deserve to be shot.
I liked all the atlantici history and the Shelta Thari stuff (there’s a Wikipedia page too) woven in: but note that when McCoy writes “Nus a dhabjan dhuilsa“, he probably means “Nus a dhabjon dhuilsha” [‘The blessing of God on you’], though I’d prefer not to pick a fight with a tinker / tinsmith as to which one is correct. Incidentally, my guess is that McCoy picked up the reference to Thari from Roger Zelazny’s 10-book ‘Amber’ series.
Inevitably, there are some historical mistakes in the book (the VMs wasn’t in Yale in 1933, I’m pretty sure that the British Museum had a positive rotograph of at least some of the VMs in 1929, etc), but frankly I couldn’t care less. It’s a delightful, frothy, whip-cracking romp through alchemical history, that I think should be required reading for any modern Voynich novelist.