I am going to make a cautious prediction here and say that THE JEFFERSON KEY may well be the Thriller of the Year. I know we're not even halfway through 2011, and many of the usual stalwarts have yet to be heard from. But Steve Berry's latest novel will be the standard by which those will be judged. This book has, in a word, everything.
Berry performs a bit of a change-up here, bringing his Cotton Malone franchise back to the United States from Amsterdam and, in the process, keeping him within the borders of the U.S. for almost the entire length of the book. Accordingly, there is none of the usual globe-trotting that is part-and-parcel to a Cotton Malone adventure, and, for that matter, not much continent-trotting either. Malone is pretty much confined to three or four cities and…well, I won't tell, but odds are you have visited at least one or two of the spots where Malone gets things going, even if you aren't particularly well-traveled.
Bibliophiles will be glad to hear that Malone's Amsterdam bookstore does not get blown up or set afire even once during THE JEFFERSON KEY. Instead, Malone gets suckered --- twice --- within the space of the first several pages, all in the course of what has the potential to be a history-altering event. This event is put into place by a shadowy group known as the Commonwealth: a gang of four who have existed since the early days of the United States and are, to some extent, responsible for the fact that there even is a United States. The U.S., in turn, has enabled the Commonwealth to operate with impunity --- first as privateers, then as pirates --- thanks to a letter, or "marque," issued by the Founding Fathers. This letter was derived from a provision in the Constitution, in spite of the efforts of a number of presidents whose terms of office were suddenly and violently terminated.
Several entities --- some with government approval, others without --- are now seeking the original document. They include the President of the United States and the Commonwealth itself, as well as the head of a U.S. intelligence organization that wants more power. However, finding the authorizing document will not be easy. President Andrew Jackson, seeking to terminate the authority of the Commonwealth, hid the original document and went to his grave with the knowledge of its whereabouts. The only clue to its location is a cipher originally owned by Thomas Jefferson, which has never been broken. Until now.
Malone is caught in the middle of the hunt, racing against time and a powerful organization that has changed the history of not only the United States, but also the world --- more than once --- and is now seeking to bring the current President to his knees.
THE JEFFERSON KEY consists of one of those all-too-rare narratives that is full of substance, yet picks you up and carries you along so quickly that you are almost disappointed when the party --- full of explosions, karate and revelations --- is over. Berry very skillfully makes this happen by way of rapid-fire shifts of scene and point of view, with something important, exciting and/or dangerous happening in each one. There is quite simply no good place to stop reading once you've started.
Berry also provides the best "Writer's Note" that one is likely to encounter in a thriller, taking a step-by-step tour through the novel in order to distinguish historical fantasy from reality. Throw in an ending line that will have those with fertile minds howling, and you have a book that's impossible not to love from first page to last.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 27, 2011