I have had a really bad run in recent weeks – some sub-par McEwan and the execrable Amis – so what led me to pick this one up I am not quite sure. Certainly the cover told me pretty much all I needed to know – US flag on fire, presidential seal, White House with lone figure in background – this is going to be a derivative thriller. Interestingly the cover art for the US version had a much more prominent picture of the White House – I am guessing that American reader won’t need the Jefferson link spelling out so clearly.
No surprises there then. This book is a lazy cash-in on Dan Brown’s success with “The Da Vinci Code”. Many of the components are copied without any attempt at disguise, from the supposedly impenetrable code (tick) to the reinterpretation of historical events (tick) and the secret society hiding in our midst, controlling historical events (tick). The narrative style – many very short scenes cutting from one location to another quickly – and the attempt to compress the events of the novel into as short a time period as possible, (forgetting people’s need to nap, eat, etc,) to give a sense of pace and speed is also copied directly from Brown. And then there is the simple fact of the novel’s name itself, following the formula “The (Name of figure from history) + (synonym for mystery). Expect the Michelangelo Conundrum, the Caravaggio Puzzle and the Newton Sudoku to follow.
For what it matters, the plot revolves around an American pirating community which had its origins in the American War of Independence, when privateers were encouraged to attach English shipping. These pirates were allegedly given Presidential authority – letters of marque – to operate with impunity as long as the work against enemis of the state. Successive Presidential attempts to rein them in had been countered with assassinations. This novel focusses on attempts by a President Daniels to curb the powers of the “Commonwealth” and the pirates attempts to fight back. The cast of leading characters includes Cotton Malone, who has appeared in six previous and I guess highly similar novels (from their titles) although the characters are not distinguished from one another in any marked way.
While the plot is a huge predictable disappointment, the writing is equally dire. The author seems to have been paid by the word, because the plot is ground out to its far foreseen conclusion without a hint of suspense or interest. For example, some characters die in a building ruin which floods todally – this is flagged as likely early on, returned to many times, and finally claims the expected victims, almost in passing. Techniques such as having a character shot, followed by a switch of focus to another scene, then returning to the shooting scene only for the character to have amazingly survived through a misfire, bullet proof vest, blank shot etc happens at least three times. As the novel is seventh in the series the reader is in doubt that the principal character will survive. The writing is as turgid and cliche ridden as one would expect, although some phrases still jump out with their awkwardness – for example a stairway is said to “rightangle”. I have no problem with using nouns as verbs, but this one is a step to far for me.
Novels of this kind – written for the “if you like this writer why not try this writer” Amazon recommendation algorithm – really shouldn’t apear here – but I did promise to try not to censor myself, and to review my reading good bad or otherwise. Gosh I have even written about books I have read and not written about! So I return to the question I began with – what possessed me to read this? In part it was because this was a gift, and I didn’t want to show disrespect to the giver. Also, I was hoping that this might be one of those “so bad it is good” novels, or even something that was unoriginal but had its merits notwithstanding the genre. Sadly, not – trust the cover.
P.S. One other quibble. One character uses the phrase “a sticky wicket” which as far as I know is not American vernacular. This is a clumsy attempt to give “colour” to a character with a Spanish background – and the text refers to her father funding several Spanish national cricket teams. Now they do play cricket in Spain, Google tells me, but it’s not the traditional home of the sport. Another example of clumsiness which really jarred.