THE COLUMBUS AFFAIR is not, as my dear wife initially thought, a novel about an illicit tryst in Ohio’s capital city. Rather, Steve Berry’s new thriller is a break in his well-established and much-loved Cotton Malone series. Those of us with long memories will recall that Berry’s literary career began with stand-alone books, and his latest is a return to that form. Fans of Malone, though, will quickly find that the author’s trademark literary tools --- historical mysteries, unforgettable characters, and action, action, action --- are present here in spades.
"I don’t want to give away any part of this exquisite plot, but rest assured that Berry takes on one of antiquity’s greatest legends/mysteries and outdoes his previous efforts once again."
Berry has followed the wonderful practice of devoting several pages at the end of his books to discussing what is fact, what is fiction, and what is conjecture in the preceding chapters. I confess that I enjoy this “Writer’s Note” so much that I have gotten into the habit of reading it before the novel due to its wealth of information. Every school child --- particularly if you grew up in Columbus, Ohio in the 1960s --- is familiar with the rhyme “in fourteen hundred ninety-two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” The man has become quite controversial in recent times, but, as one learns after jumping with both feet into this book, there is much more to the story than the two-line couplet. Berry delves deeply into Columbus the man, dropping historical breadcrumbs throughout his narrative.
What keeps things moving --- the MacGuffin, if you will --- at breakneck speed throughout the book is the rumor of a treasure hidden by Columbus on the island of Jamaica. Berry establishes a believable tie between that rumor and Tom Sagan, a once-respected journalist whose career now lies in ruins. Sagan, after having lost all that he once had, is on the verge of committing suicide when he is approached in a dramatic manner by Zachariah Simon, who makes a simple but extremely unusual demand of Sagan. In order to save his daughter, Sagan must agree to the exhumation of his late father’s body. A key to the treasure’s location is supposed to be buried with the body, and it’s a key that Simon wants and is willing to go to any lengths in order to obtain. Sagan has been estranged from his daughter for many years and was also on the outs with his father at the time of the elder Sagan’s death. Still, he is all too willing to do anything to protect his daughter.
Meanwhile, forces in opposition to Simon are moving against him, though whether or not their motives are entirely pure remain to be seen. Sagan finds that there is something to live for after all, and it’s not merely the treasure. He never did understand how his journalism career fell to ruins, and before THE COLUMBUS AFFAIR is over, he just might have the means to restore his reputation and perhaps be given the opportunity for some revenge. First, though, he must make it to the end of the book, which is far from a certainty.
History was never this interesting when I was in school, but then history never connected the line between Christopher Columbus and… but that would be telling. I don’t want to give away any part of this exquisite plot, but rest assured that Berry takes on one of antiquity’s greatest legends/mysteries and outdoes his previous efforts once again.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 18, 2012