30 September 2008

Book review: The Charlemagne Pursuit

The Charlemagne Pursuit (2008)
By Steve Berry (Ballantine, 2008 / Hardcover $26.00)

Perhaps in his next thriller-historical mystery, author Steve Berry could tackle the insane Phantom Time Hypothesis, a lunatic-fringe theory that argues that the years 614 to 911 never happened and were hoaxes created in the later Middle Ages. That’s no more outlandish than the mystery at the heart of his new thriller, The Charlemagne Pursuit, but since the Phantom Time Hypothesis supposedly abolishes Charlemagne to a fictional figure, that might dismantle the enjoyable adventure of pseudo-history that Berry has crafted here, which, as the title tells you, delves into the secrets of Europe’s first great ruler.

Berry returns to his series character Cotton Malone, a lawyer who once belonged to a Department of Justice task force called Magellan Billet, but has since retired into work as a rare bookseller. Not that this keeps him out of trouble, and when he starts looking into the mystery of what happened to his father Forrest Malone, whose submarine vanished mysteriously on a clandestine mission when Cotton was only ten, he walks into the scheming of Washington, a torn aristocratic German family, and a secret buried with Emperor Charlemagne that might lead to a lost civilization in the ice of Antarctica.

The Charlemagne Pursuit does start fast and frantic, and the promise of the mysteries of the Carolingian Age will keep most readers hooked through the opening hundred pages. Then the story starts to bog down in the split focus between Malone’s European adventure with the feuding sisters German Dorothea and Christl and their scheming mother Isabel, and the stateside-based assassination plot starring Malone’s old boss Stephanie Nelle and deputy national security advisor Edwin Davis trying to work out the game of Admiral Langford Ramsey and his paid killer, Charlie Smith. Berry enjoys jarring and rapid cuts between the separate plots within chapters, which doesn’t so much ramp up the suspense as turn the action into a blur. Some of the assassination sequences generate tension, and the icy Smith is definitely the novel’s strongest character, but near the middle of the page count Berry loses focus and starts to depend on text breaks and sudden character switches based on shaky foundations to carry the story.

The promise of the revelation of “The Holy Ones,” the mysterious people whose history lies locked in the obscurity of Carolingian monuments and books, never reaches an epiphany, which is a shame since the initial intrigue about it is terrific. But it gets buried in a few too many secrets letters, volumes, and parchments, not to mention the routine espionage action happening stateside. The book concludes with plenty of rapid action and double-crosses, but not much scope or majesty, and it needs that much more.

Steve Berry does surpass in the style Dan Brown, whose Da Vinci Code is obviously the inspiration for this sort of novel, a mix of international modern espionage and discourses on ancient and medieval mysteries locked within codes. Some of the background appears to come from a variation on the 2004 book Civilization One by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler, which Berry mentions in his Afterword, and possibly Merian C. Cooper’s strange 1935 adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s She. I don’t think Berry believes any of this psuedohistory of psuedoarchaeology, but gosh darn, it is sure is fun to pretend, eh? Safe to say, if you at least mildly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, The Charlemagne Pursuit will keep you entertained without demanding too much.

On a personal note, reading The Charlemagne Pursuit made me dig up my old Penguin copy from college of Two Lives of Charlemagne by Einhard and Notker the Stammerer and get to know ol’ Charles a bit better. Mr. Berry should take that as a compliment.