Steve Berry's latest novel The Columbus Affair begs the question: where is Cotton Malone when you need him? In most of his previous novels government operative Cotton Malone has been front and center. This time out he is not. The focus is now on Tom Sagan, a disgraced journalist. As a replacement for Malone, Sagan just doesn't cut it. Berry needs to get Malone back in action and quickly.
In this current story Sagan is found to be a man alienated from his family, disgraced in his profession, and reduced to ghostwriting novels to make a living. He is a shell of his former self and has reached such a low point that he is contemplating suicide. Just as he is about to take that step he is confronted by a man named Zachariah Simon who tells Sagan he has his daughter Alle and will kill her unless Tom does something for him.
Tom and his daughter have been estranged for many years but that does not mean that Tom does not still love her. He capitulates to Simon's demands and sets off on an adventure that involves his Jewish heritage, Christopher Columbus' treasures, and a variety of fortune hunters who will use his knowledge for their own gain.
The action stretches from Florida to Prague to Jamaica with many stops in between. Along the way the reader gets history lessons on the actions of Christopher Columbus, the status of holy treasures of the Jewish faith, and the establishment of country of Jamaica. Some of this is interesting and some of this is not, but it is all there in great detail.
The problem is the history lessons get in the way of the plot. It seems at times you get a few pages of plot and then a load of history. So much so you almost forget where the story is going while you try to absorb this information. In the past Berry's plots have been exciting enough to get the reader past these lapses but in this new novel the plot is fairly calm until the last fifty or sixty pages. Therefore the readers' investment in the story is not as great.
Steve Berry has always been an author who incorporates history into his novels, but in those stories with Cotton Malone in the lead it was all balanced with the adventure. This time out Sagan is not a strong enough lead character to help the reader bridge the history and the plot. The story becomes too much about Christopher Columbus and not enough about Tom Sagan and his story.
Memo to Steve Berry: bring back Cotton Malone and tone down the history lessons. We need more adventure and less information.
The Columbus Affair is published by Random House. It contains 448 pages and sells for $27.00.
Jackie K Cooper
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