1/01/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
pub: Angry Robot/HarperCollins. 290 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-00732-245-9)
check out websites: www.angryrobotbooks.comand www.chrisroberson.net
'Book Of Secrets' is one of the first novels to be published by Angry Robot Books, a new genre imprint from HarperCollins. It is a bit of a departure for Chris Roberson, the thirty-something American author. His previous novels span SF, fantasy and franchised genre titles (X-Men, Star Trek, etc), so Angry Robot would seem a natural home. Yet 'Book Of Secrets' is a modern crime thriller. Or is it?
The story is told by Spencer Finch, a workaday reporter who receives an anonymous tip-off on the first page. The mysterious caller tells him that local millionaire Nathan Pierce, whom Finch has been trying to dig some dirt on, has recently hired a backstreet private eye for nefarious purposes. Intrigued, Finch heads over to the PI's office to find out why. However, he's too late. It turns out the PI took an unfortunate tumble out of his sixth floor bedroom window two nights earlier. Smelling a story, Finch starts to investigate.
At the same time, Finch needs to deal with the recent death of his grandfather, who brought him and his twin brother up after their parents' untimely deaths. Finch is, however, estranged from his former guardian so is surprised to find out that he was remembered in the will. He becomes even more confused when he picks up his inheritance. It is a cardboard box filled with pulp magazines and typed notes of no obvious value.
This is where the book goes all post-modern on us. It is structured as a series of seven chapters, one for each day of Finch's investigation. These are however interspersed with six short stories. Each of these originates from the box that Finch inherited from his grandfather. They are grabbed from that box each evening by Finch as his bedtime reading and we read them along with him. As the main narrative wends its way forwards one day at a time, the intervening stories move backwards through time. The first is an Ellery Queen-type mystery, supposedly published in 1939. Subsequent interlopers are dated to 1918 and then the nineteenth, eighteenth and fifteenth centuries. The final short story is a supposed extract from 'Prometheus Unbound', one of many lost plays by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, dating back to around 500BC. What links these short stories is the appearance in each of them of a character or secret society known as 'The Black Hand'. As Finch reads them, he starts to wonder why his grandfather was so obsessed by this 'Black Hand'.
These two storylines, the narrative of Finch's investigation and the collection of 'Black Hand' stories, come together in the last chapter of the book, revealing a central plot of impressive ambition. Roberson has done nothing less than provide a fictional marriage between Greek Mythology and the Old Testament Book of Genesis in the 'Book Of Secrets' of the title, a long-lost manuscript which could give its owner ultimate power.
This transformation of 'Book Of Secrets' from mainstream thriller to religious conspiracy story may have echoes of 'The Da Vinci Code'. However, the present book is much better written and takes itself far less seriously. 'Book Of Secrets' has good pace, believable characters and a fascinating plot. The interleaved short stories are brilliantly done. They are authentically written in the right style for each period and are entertaining reads in their own right. The novel's denouement, as Finch tries to stop the bad guys getting their hands on the 'Book Of Secrets', is both exciting and unexpected.
I have only two criticisms of this book. Both concern the central character, Spencer Finch. First, we are told that Spencer and his brother Patrick are twins, brought up from the age of five by an unsympathetic and emotionally distant grandfather. You might expect this experience to have left Spencer and Patrick with a vigorous filial bond. The childhood flashbacks suggest this was certainly the case during their adolescence. Yet while Spencer shares his investigation with several friends, he makes no attempt to contact Patrick for his advice. As a twin myself, this did not ring true. In the end, I was left feeling that it might have been simpler for Roberson not to have bothered mentioning that Spencer had a brother and specifically a twin at all, since Patrick has so little to add to the substance of the story. Second, some of Finch's attempts to summarise Greek and Christian creation mythology in the later parts of the book make him sound more like a stupid teen-ager than a world-weary journalist. For me, these moments jarred with the character that had been built up earlier in the story and temporarily made me lose faith with Finch.
Putting these minor criticisms to one side, this is a very enjoyable novel of speculative fiction. It's a rip-roaring read with a multi-layered plot and an original and surprising conclusion. I can see myself re-reading it for pleasure in future. What more can you ask of a book?
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