Another day, another historical mystery airport novel to review, this time with Will Adams’ protagonist Daniel Knox exercising his “outcast Egyptologist” mojo in and around Alexandria, Siwa etc. Will Knox be able to solve all the clues and use his exceptional underwater swimming skills to find Alexander The Great’s fabulous (but lost) golden catafalque, or will the various people trying to kill him get there first?
Of course he bloody does.
And therein lies the rub. The problem with calling your novel “The Alexander Cipher” is that even though it pitches your book well to passing bookshop fingers, it pretty much flags the fact that Chapters 1-2 are going to be spent describing Alexander’s fabulous treasure, and most of the rest of the book is going to involve the main characters’ chasing flimsy clues to find it, culminating in a set piece finale. And Daniel Knox is really not a very likeable hero: even when he’s doing noble & morally correct things in difficult circumstances, you still want to give him a slap. And the cipher itself is just Greek written in Demotic characters, so isn’t really much cop.
Though The Alexander Cipher manages to compile nearly every questionable story ever told about Alexander T. Great and thread them neatly into the story (yes, Adams has manifestly done plenty of research), its character narrative only ever oscillates between first and second gear, never really getting any traction on the people. It’s as though Adams never wants to leave us alone in the room with Knox (or indeed anyone else) for very long, when there’s some questionable archaeological derring-do to be moved onto and done instead.
Really, even though Adams’ research and plotting all hit the right kinds of spot in a relentlessly metronomic kind way, what I ended up noticing most is the overwhelming lack of humanity that pervades each page. When you feel that the guiding force in the book’s universe is a curious stop-motion Newtonian pinball rather than the subtleties of chess or poker, it seems that only a single facet of the human condition has made the cut when the storyline was constructed.
Just to make sure I hadn’t missed something important, I then read Adams’ sequel “The Exodus Quest” (which again features Daniel Knox plus many of the same supporting characters). Same basic thing, but with less gold in play.
It would be easy to pin the blame on (say) Hollywood action flicks for somehow merging macho with Asperger’s Syndrome and for conflating urgency with sociopathy, both stylistic tics which I think Will Adams sometimes allows his protagonists to fall prey to. However Hollywood is (by and large) lazy and unimaginative, and prefers to appropriate shorthand cultural stereotypes of the day rather than to invent them afresh. So that would probably be missing the real point: which is that we moderns all have a bit of a void in our hearts as far as what our appropriate gendered self-image should be. Is being a ‘man’ really as politically jut-jawed and horrendously vacuous as these books portray? Is being a ‘woman‘ really all about beautiful complicity and self-destructive revenge? Perhaps it is better not to have any such self-image if these are all there is on offer on the cultural smorgasbord.
In the end, arguably the most awful thing about Will Adams is that he has written a series of books where the main character comes across as being more tenderly in love with his put-upon heap of a jeep than with anybody else. Though my guess is that he probably originally intended this as light relief, in the end Knox’s jeep became the female lead in the whole saga, the central love interest. OK, to me that’s just a bit wrong, but make of it what you will for yourself.