Marks of Cain

Written by Tom Knox and published in 2010 by Viking books. ISBN #: 978-0-670-02191-8.

Plot summary from the inside of the book cover:

“When David Martinez, a young lawyer, receives an ancient map from his dying grandfather, the mysteries of his past begin to open up before him. The map leads David into the heart of the dangerous Basque mountains, where a genetic curse lied buried and a frightening secret about the Western world’s past is hidden.”

My views:

In all, this book was a fairly decent ride. It has a lot of plot twists and plenty of action. I enjoy a novel that has me Googling things to find out more about specific elements. This is especially important to me when it comes to what I call historical thrillers. I enjoyed learning more about the Basques as well as the Cagots, and appreciate the authors thoroughness in creating a story around them. The payoff at the end is also an interesting theory (no spoilers).

I had trouble, however, with the characters. None of them seemed fully developed enough for me to care very much about them. The beginning of the book starts out with the character Simon Quinn at an AA meeting. There are a few times in which his addiction is mentioned, and there is an explanation of why he has this addiction, but it doesn’t seem to really fit anywhere in the plot, and certainly doesn’t give any real insight into Simon himself. There are characters that are mentioned but never developed and they only seem to be mentioned as a devise to make the main character more sympathetic; again, with Simon Quinn, he has a young son whose only purpose in the book is to have the reader care that Simon is in danger and has a young son. As far as the other main character, David Martinez, the reader learns that his parents were killed when he was about 15 years old, leaving him with no family except a grandfather who lives on another continent. But the way that this unfolds and is revealed over time still does not have me feeling overly sympathetic to this character. None of the characters seem to change even when given the information they seek and more background about each other. They feel like static characters who are used to move the plot along. They almost feel interchangeable.

The action scenes are done well but sometimes feel a little over-thought or drawn out. The descriptions of torture scenes were well done as well as the details of the scenery and places in Europe. These also had me Googling and I found some of the building fascinating. I felt that the dialogue was a bit drawn out, as well, and the use of italics was a little confusing in some places; I wasn’t sure if it was being used for emphasis or for some other reason. In some cases there seemed to be extra dialogue that made it feel as if the author was trying to hit a specific word count.

With the two plot lines, sometimes it seemed as if they would never come together, and when they finally did, it was a little bit of a let down. The climax was a bit of a let down as well. Simon Quinn is a journalist, but the author seems to rely too much on this chosen profession. By the end of the novel, the journalist, who has NOT been with the other two main characters almost the entire time, has it all neatly written down in his notebook and then proceeds to read it all out loud to the other characters. It seems too convenient for the reader, but I have to admit, I needed that to happen because it was not an easy plot line to follow. I am used to several sub-plots running at the same time, but this one was seriously confusing at times. So even though I find this way to wrap things up a bit elementary, I also found it helpful for the reasons stated above.

The climax. Well, it was a little anti-climatic. No spoilers, but it is an interesting theory, but it was not the huge reveal or shocking theory that I was expecting. It had a great build up but took too long to get there, and then to listen as Simon tied it up into a nice package for me made it a little textbookish.

So, using a star rating system, I’d give this 3 out of 5 stars. It’s fun, but not overly impressive. But a 3/5 means that I will check out Tom Knox’s other books and see how they go. I never have a problem with an author who has me Googling. :):):)

The Magdalene Cipher

by Jim Hougan. 1995, Harper Collins

Pot summary from Amazon:

From the shadows of history — out of the ancient prophecies and sacred texts — comes a conspiracy so vast, so deep, so earth-shattering that the CIA itself is merely a cover for it.

The ritualistic slaughter of a college professor right under the nose of CIA agent Jack Dunphy has damned the disgraced operative to a living hell of paper-pushing obscurity. But Dunphy’s not ready to surrender his career until he uncovers the truth behind his demotion — embarking on a covert investigation that’s leading him into a world he never dreamed existed. And following a twisted trail of lies, Jack’s about to become ensnared in a monstrous international web spun by a secret society as old as civilization.

Escape is impossible — because the players are too powerful, the consequences are too deadly . . . and what’s at stake is no less than the destiny of the human race.

I have tried to read this book on several occasions and finally slugged my way through it. It wants to be on the same level as a Steve Berry or a James Rollins, but it never makes it. There are secret things going on but it takes too long to resolve itself. And, if you’ve read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, you already have an idea where this is going. Part of the plot that it takes forever to get to is the idea that Jesus was married and had a child. I won’t spoil all the plot, but the Merovingians are involved and the end is unsatisfying. It is hard to follow in that it tries to keep the reader guessing along with the main character through limited third person (we only get the main character’s perspective) point of view. This is not a great way to unfold a story as complex as the author tries to make it. When I read a thriller, I need clues along the way and I really need to know the perspective of at least some of the other characters.

Speaking of characters, the main character of Jack Dunphy is not as smart as I thought CIA agents would be. Most of the book is him trying to run from the CIA, which I’m not sure if it’s just the author showing off what he may know about how the CIA does things or maybe it’s filler. Either way, Dunphy is not really likable in any part of the book, is a bit of a dumbass, and is maddeningly, overly, ordinary. His love interest, Clementine, who ends up going on the run with him, which is in itself a little unbelievable since it doesn’t seem that they were that close from the beginning, is rather bland and is neither a dynamic nor a developed character. She seems convenient as the female influence that the main character needs on occasion, but is mostly a throw-away character. There is little worthy characterization which helps the reader not care about the plot or the story in itself.

The book never got going until the last quarter when Dunphy is attacked at the Blemont hotel in Paris. It is a torture scene, but it is the first time when Dunphy seems to have any type of personality and the action is enough to keep my interest.

The only redeeming quality of this book, really, is that I had to look up a few things which is always nice. I was introduced to the Merovignians and through that, a connection to the Matrix as well as The Da Vinci Code.

My rating for this would be 2 out of 5 stars. Not really worth it, especially if you are a Steve Berry, Dan Brown, or James Rollins fan. It falls too short of being a thriller.

Digital Fortress

By Dan Brown 1998, St. Martin’s Press

Plot summary from Amazon:

When the NSA’s invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant, beautiful mathematician. What she uncovers sends shock waves through the corridors of power. The NSA is being held hostage–not by guns or bombs — but by a code so complex that if released would cripple U.S. intelligence. Caught in an accelerating tempest of secrecy and lies, Fletcher battles to save the agency she believes in. Betrayed on all sides, she finds herself fighting not only for her country but for her life, and in the end, for the life of the man she loves.

My opinion:

This is Dan Brown’s first stand-alone novel (first novel published) and I read it long after the Da Vinci Code, although this is my second reading of Digital Fortress. I do like this novel, almost more than I like Da Vinci Code. I think it is well researched, has great characterization, and somewhat believable dialogue.

I like that the main character is a strong female. She does have her moments where I cringe and say, “Seriously?” but for the most part she is smart and clever. The other characters are well developed and some very likable.

It an intriguing story and in this day and age of computer viruses and hacking (having trouble with Zoom anyone?) it is still relevant even though it is over 20 years old. The idea of the NSA being hijacked should be an underlying fear at all times for governments around the world.

The action is good. There is a lot of suspense; will they learn how to shut the computer down? Will the world survive?

It is a good thriller, and, again, I think it is a better read than any of the books in Brown’s Langdon series.