In my opinion, cipher mystery-themed airport novels tend (as I wrote here a few days ago) to be written by (1) “Rack Pack” writers, (2) “Domain Experts”, or (3) “Wannabe Screenwriters”. Having read Steve Berry’s book “The Templar Legacy” (2006) as a warm-up, I recently moved on to his “The Charlemagne Pursuit” (2008), where the serial use of the main character ‘Cotton Malone’ places Berry firmly amongst the Rack Pack. But is he Rack the Knife or Rack the Hack?
The first thing I’d say is that The Charlemagne Pursuit is definitely put together far better than its predecessor, whose cardboard Bond-world characters such as ‘Cassiopeia Vitt’ (who it seems unfortunately reappears in later Cotton Malone books) and ghastly Templar clichés reduced the art of reading from a pleasure to a struggle. Really, compared with the sparky horses-in-the-New-York-museum start to Raymond Khoury’s “The Last Templar“, Berry’s The Templar Legacy remained ungrippingly pedestrian throughout.
All the same, The Charlemagne Pursuit is no less stuffed with airport mystery fodder – beautiful Nazi-family twin sisters, ancient architectural hints, buried clues, castles, Atlantis, Ahnenerbe, secret submarines, Voynich Manuscript-style documents, professional killers, unlikeable protagonist, etc. Yet what I found most frustrating is that if you stripped out all the history / lost civilizations / Nazi / mad admiral guff, the raw core of the story – Cotton Malone hunting down his dead submariner father, with surprising success – would be basically OK. And so I felt at the end that I’d read a decent-enough 100-page book ripped into a 600-pager by a sustained ingestion of airport novel steroids.
For sure, Berry’s book fully deserves its place in my Big Fat List as probably the highest-profile Voynich Manuscript novel yet: but the VMs is mainly treated as a kind of codicological template to help generate the various mysterious books Berry’s narrative requires along the way, rather than actually engaged with in any interesting or intriguing manner – not actually disdain, but certainly something close to disinterest. And perhaps it’s just me, but there’s also something just a bit desperate about his scattergun constructional style, which comes across not unlike a neurotic parent grabbing every soft toy in turn to try to placate an unhappy toddler. Ultimately, I’d rather read a book with half (if not less!) as many themes weaved together but explored in a more engaging way: but perhaps that’s a grossly unreasonable expectation of the genre, you’ll have to make up your own mind.
In summary, I did enjoy bits of it: but most of it came across as a Nazi-themed rollercoaster ride where you don’t care much for any of the twists and turns, let alone the characters.