When novelist Steve Berry is not at his best, as was the case with The Emperor's Tomb, he is still a good writer. When he is at his best, as he is with The Jefferson Key, he is a terrific writer. With this latest novel, Berry turns down the volume on his excesses and goes straight for the plot. He manages to make almost five hundred pages seem much too short as he races from one exciting segment to the next.
In some of Berry's previous books he gave us too much background. It was interesting to be sure but it was out of proportion to the plot. This was the case in The Emperor's Tomb. The reader learned so much about Chinese history that we lost our place in the modern day story. By the time that book ended we had had a great history lesson but we were exhausted by the sheer volume of it all.
This is not the case with The Jefferson Key. In this one the plot concerns an attempted assassination of the President of the United States, and the rest of the book deals with who did it and why -- and how they can be caught. Berry's great continuing hero is Cotton Malone and he is the man who comes back to the States just as the attempt is made.
Malone has appeared in Berry's books from the first and he is always exciting in a James Bond sort of way. Malone is an American who lives in Europe and most of his adventures have taken place on foreign continents, but this one takes place on his home turf. He is back in the States because he has been mysteriously summoned by Stephanie Nelle, the head of the Magellan Billet and Malone's former boss. Magellan is a secret agency that serves the president.
Malone has brought along Cassiopeia Vitt, a woman who is as adventurous as he and also as capable in tough situations. She is also his lover. If Stephanie sends Cotton into harm's way then Cassiopeia will have his back. And he does get sent into harm's way when he goes up against a group of "privateers" who think they have been betrayed by their government. These "privateers" are basically pirates who think they operate outside the law and for many years they did. Now their activities have brought them into conflict with the government and they are desperate to find a hidden document which will give them legitimacy for their actions.
There is also a treacherous head of another government intelligence organization who wants these papers for herself. She is working against the president as is a man who is working for the "Privateers." Cotton has his work cut out for him in he searches for the hidden papers, tries to protect the president, and seeks to uncover the people behind the assassination attempt. Whew! You can see why the four hundred plus pages can barely do justice to the plot.
The Jefferson Key is Steve Berry at his very best. His writing is assured and exciting. Never does he feel like he is stretching out his plot in order to add volume to the story, each element and action is absolutely necessary. He also manages to combine history with fiction in such a way that it all seems absolutely possible and believable.
Steve Berry has always been a popular writer but this book will raise his reputation to a whole new level. The Jefferson Key is his best book yet and that is saying a lot. It is Berry, Berry good!
The Jefferson Key is published by Ballantine Books. It contains 480 pages and sells for $26.00.
Jackie K Cooper