Carrying the surname "Tolkien" can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if you show a knack for writing, you are joining a fine lineage started by the immortal J.R.R. Tolkien. On the other hand, the expectations may be way too high, making success a difficult leap. Thankfully, Simon Tolkien, J.R.R.'s grandson, has paved his own literary pathway. THE KING OF DIAMONDS represents another literary success for him.
Tolkien's writing has been called a unique blend of Agatha Christie and John Grisham. That is another high bar to reach, but his writing backs up this statement. The prologue is set in London, circa 1958, and the action begins inside the famous courthouse known as the Old Bailey. The trial of David Swain is nearing its conclusion, and the judgment seems to be a foregone conclusion. David is accused of killing Ethan Mendel, his girlfriend's lover. Katya Osman has already produced a number of threatening letters that David sent to her, which is more than enough for the jury to quickly render a verdict of guilty with a sentence of life imprisonment.
The novel quickly jumps forward two years to 1960. David's new bunkmate, Eddie Earle, has a penchant for prison breaks, and they begin to hatch a scheme. Meanwhile, Katya is living at Blackwater Hall, an estate belonging to her uncle, Titus. She's depressed most of the time and drug-addled, which makes her think strange things and become highly suspicious of those around her. This may be with good reason, as some of her fellow housemates include the eerie brother and sister duo of Franz and Jana Claes.
Katya is growing more and more suspicious of her Uncle Titus for two reasons. First, he has been dating Vanessa, the soon-to-be ex-wife of Detective Inspector Trave, who still believes in the innocence of her former boyfriend, David. Secondly, Titus and Franz seem to be hiding some dark secret that she cannot quite put her finger on. Katya begins to believe more and more in David's innocence and feels that Franz may have had something to do with Ethan's murder. At the same time, David and Eddie successfully break out of prison, and David heads directly to Blackwater Hall in an effort to confront Katya and her family to clear his good name. Unfortunately, David never gets the chance to reunite with Katya as she is murdered in her own bedroom. Once again, an APB is put out on David, and he is now listed as the prime suspect in the slaying.
Detective Inspector Trave works hard to prove David's innocence and seems to be the only person besides Katya who recognizes that something else is going on at Blackwater Hall. Regrettably, Trave is promptly taken off the case after questioning the residents for fear that his judgment may be tainted due to the fact that his wife left him for Titus. David is soon captured and sent back to prison awaiting a new trial. Trave is peremptorily suspended from duty due to his attempts to assist David. However, prior to Trave being given the sack, he travels to Antwerp to track the history of two brothers --- Ethan and Jacob. What Trave begins to unravel is a deadly secret that dates back to the Holocaust camps at Auschwitz. Even more sinister is the fact that Franz and Titus may be implicated in assisting the SS Guard under the leadership of infamous Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
David is convicted yet again of murder --- and this time is sentenced to hang for his crime. Can Trave race against the clock to clear David of not one but two murders that are both tied to Titus and Franz? Will he be able to uncover Katya's missing diary, which may tell the true story? Is it possible that Titus's fortune as a diamond merchant may have come from personal effects taken from the millions of Jews who were sent to their slaughter during the Holocaust? The answers may lie not only in Katya's mysterious diary but also with the one living person who can validate all of this: Jacob. The only issue is that Jacob is nowhere to be found, and time is running out for both David and Trave.
The claim comparing Simon Tolkien to Dame Agatha Christie and John Grisham is not to be taken lightly. The ironic part is just how true this statement is. THE KING OF DIAMONDS combines a deeply-layered mystery with several interesting characters along with the intrigue of criminal trails and police chases. Set against very real historical context like the Holocaust and the hunt for Adolf Eichmann --- who was not convicted of war crimes until 1962 --- gives much credibility to a great read and a thoroughly engaging thriller.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 28, 2011