THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT, Steve Berry’s latest work, is a 500-plus-page opus that combines fact, fiction, educated conjecture and strong characterization while maintaining rapid-fire readability at all times.
Main protagonist Cotton Malone once again is the lynchpin that holds together what transpires. This time, though, he shares the spotlight with Edwin Davis, a presidential deputy national security advisor, and Stephanie Nelle. Nelle is the head of a U.S. Justice Department lawyer task force in Atlanta, Georgia, and a member of Magellan Billet, an off-the-book operation from which Malone is ostensibly retired. All are drawn together by two events taking place half a world apart.
Malone is approached in Germany by Dorothea Lindauer, a mysterious woman who claims a tragic kinship with Malone. Malone’s father, Forrest, a U.S. Navy captain, died tragically at sea in 1971 when Malone was 10 years old. Malone had been told that he perished in a submarine disaster in the North Atlantic. But what Lindauer reveals is that Forrest actually lost his life while commanding a secret prototype nuclear submarine on a classified mission beneath the Antarctic ice shelves. It turns out that Lindauer’s father was on the sub as well. Malone requests and obtains the military files on the incident from Nelle and learns that what Lindauer is telling him is true. Lindauer wants Malone’s assistance in determining the final fate of the sub and their respective fathers, but she has an additional stake in the investigation.
Lindauer and her twin sister, Christl Falk, are locked in a battle for the fortune that their conniving mother has promised to whomever of them can discover the ultimate fate of their father, who had his own reasons for being on the sub. A former Nazi, he had been part of a Third Reich exploration of Antarctica in 1938 that had been organized as the result of cryptic clues discovered in the tomb of Charlemagne. As Malone begins his investigation, reluctantly involving himself with the warring sisters, he learns of the existence of a series of journals written in an unknown script referred to as “the language of heaven.” These lead Malone across France and Germany and ultimately to Antarctica, where he will experience two major revelations: one with potential consequences for humanity, and the other that will personally affect him to the very depth of his being.
While Malone conducts his investigation and pursuit, events in the United States are being influenced by his quest. His inquiry into the military files concerning his father’s death has attracted the attention of Langford Ramsey, an overly ambitious and almost universally detested Navy admiral who has his sights set on a vacant seat among the Joint Chiefs of Staff --- a vacancy he created. Early in his career, Ramsey led a top-secret mission to the Antarctic in 1971 to determine the fate of Forrest Malone and his crew. He has kept secret what he discovered and is trying to keep Malone away from it, permanently, even as he pursues his own ambitions at home with a ruthlessness that is startling. Only Nelle and Davis stand in Ramsey’s way, even as his nomination to the Joint Chiefs --- and beyond --- seems assured.
Berry brings both plots to a steady boil; they run to a fast-paced but measured conclusion --- it is impossible to stop reading during the book’s final half --- which not only presents an interesting and plausible explanation of one aspect of history’s many mysteries, but also provides readers with a key piece of information regarding Malone’s background. And notwithstanding an exciting, almost exhaustive denouement, Berry pulls off the very neat trick of leaving his readers wanting even more, teasing the next novel with an ending that begins the events of that yet-to-be-seen work. If that isn’t enough, he additionally provides fodder for thriller aficionados, name checking (very briefly) another author’s character and naming a secondary character after the spouse of a prominent thriller author.
There is literally something for everyone in THE CHARLEMAGNE PURSUIT, and all of it is great.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 26, 2010