Authors Clive Cussler and Justin Scott are titans of transportation-themed novels and return to their maritime forte in the third Isaac Bell historical thriller, following a railway coup d’état with the Wrecker.
“By 1908, the Van Dorn Detective Agency maintained a presence in all American cities of consequence.” Protagonist Isaac Bell is that agency’s super-sleuth, where countless private detectives are known simply as Van Dorns. Though the titular spy always seems a step ahead, Bell uses old-fashioned cunning to deduce where the spy will strike next and get into his mindset. Or is it her? Red-herring hints bait readers along the way. When Bell suggests that Mademoiselle Duvall may be the spy, fiancée Marion Morgan says, “A spy? She’s such a flibbertigibbet.”
Racing to construct a 600-foot dreadnought during embryonic rumblings of world war, England, Germany and Japan join the race, while America constructs the Michigan: “[O]ur newest battleship will have the best gun arrangement in the world.” Captain Lowell Falconer thrills Bell with details about battleships, including the HMS Dreadnought. “Hull 44 is my response. America’s response.” But with super dreadnoughts under construction, Bell links rumors of mysterious “Hull 44” to suspicious deaths of those who work on the project. While investigating, he holes up in New York’s prestigious Knickerbocker Hotel and tells his main office, “Put it on the cuff ’til we figure who the client is.”
For Bell, money is no object; he inherited a whopping five million dollars in the day of nickel shoe-shines and subway rides, and “shave and a haircut, two bits.” Bell’s tricked-out Locomobile clips along at a mile a minute.
Of a more sinister note, vile “Iceman” sets his sights on Bell’s death. A lethal lancehead viper is displayed at the fancy Cumberland Hotel, where its “$2.50-a-night room fee ought to keep out the riffraff.” But even the Knickerbocker can’t keep “the Sudden Death” out of Bell’s suite. Horrors! With the deadliest known reptile sharing his bed, “the snake’s needle-sharp fangs struck Bell in the chest, directly over his heart.” Is this the end of the Isaac Bell series?
Bell moves “with an economy of motion,” unless danger calls for fancy footwork. Nefarious characters Paddy the Rat, “Blood Bucket” Dick Butler and Brian “Eyes” O’Shay are spawns of Hell’s Kitchen and now threaten the entire fleet of American warships. With a slogan like “The Van Dorns never give up,” Bell is not to be outdone by street thugs. However, with President Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet in jeopardy and shipyards manufacturing super warships along New York’s East River, Bell assumes those thugs cannot be involved.
When Bell asks Czar Nikolai Romanov’s young ship architect Yourkevitch if Russia is building larger dreadnoughts, and to describe a mysterious man seen lurking about the shipyard, the whippersnapper replies, “Old like you, maybe thirty.” Undaunted, Bell encounters seemingly innocent people from China, Japan, England and Germany. Who among them, if any, is the spy?
Bell’s true love is the first female “moving pictures” producer, Marion Morgan, whom he escorts to Rector’s lobster palace through New York’s first revolving door. Baron-like jewel purveyor Herr Erhard Riker struts like a Prussian peacock, and Bell retains Riker to acquire for his betrothed an emerald “mysterious as the eye of a cat.”
Appropriately opening the thriller on Saint Patrick’s Day, THE SPY draws on the distrust Americans felt toward my Irish forebears five generations ago. The Irish “dreamed that when war engulfed Europe...Germany would defeat England, and Ireland would be free.”
With “cast-iron water mains, electrical conduits, and brick sewers” and subways constructed by open-cut excavation, “change is always preceded by a universal conviction that there is nothing new under the sun.” But in this election year, readers are reminded that more things change the more they stay the same. “No one dared asked a senator traveling without his wife whom he was meeting at midnight.”
Cussler and Scott allow readers to travel back a century in this richly researched read. The ship-shape writing duo heaps on more excitement and thrills than a Coney Island roller coaster ride. A gruesome end tolls for the nefarious spy, just as Bell nearly lost sight of him. With TNT, torpedoes and submarines crowded along Manhattan shipyards, THE SPY goes out with a bang.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (www.DeanMurphy.net) on January 23, 2011