Years ago, as I drove through town, I heard a 30-second commercial describing a new novel. The premise was fascinating: what if Hitler's advisors had not all been caught? What if one lived — and planned to take control again? The Third Reich had come up with some crazy schemes, including establishing "doubles" of Hitler's advisors to take the fall in case they were imprisoned. What if it really happened? The prisoner Herman Hesse in Spandau Prison had baffled authorities for years, claiming to not be him, adopting activities and habits foreign to the prisoner before his imprisonment.
That afternoon, I purchased and read Spandau Phoenix, the first novel of Greg Iles (whom I still suspect is the invented alter ego of John Grisham). I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Ever since then, I have been searching for the next best surprise thriller.
I wish I could say Blasphemy by Douglas Preston was it. It was very exciting in places, but it's no Spandau Phoenix. Still, it was a good read.
The story is simple, but complex. Scientists testing a supercomputer come across something odd when they create a mini black hole. They are positive that it's a mistake and try to disprove it.
Meanwhile, the Navajo nation has finished its negotiation with the federal government for the use of Navajo land for this project. The tribal leader is no longer in need of the talents of a Washington lobbyist, who does not like being unceremoniously dumped. He makes a call to kick up some dust to bring the Navajo tribal leader back to his, er, coffer (and hopefully paying lots more money for his services).
The CIA is suspicious. World-renown scientists running a $45 billion computer won't say something is wrong, but obviously something isn't right. So one lone, smart bureaucrat sends his own investigator, a former company man who left his agency. It also just so happens this guy, reeling from the loss of his wife, was educated as a mathematician along side one of the scientists in this suspect project — a former lover for whom he still carries a flame.
Toss in a crazy, lonesome and desperate Pentecostal preacher; a laid-back Navajo medicine man; a reservation police officer who wants to handle things his way; and another, more ambitious and desperate preacher with bigger bills to pay.
Oh, and God. This story would be nothing without God. (At least, the "old-fashioned, American" version.)
Preston paints his characters with realistic paint and strokes. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and the line between them is as sketchy as usual. They are not unrealistic, hackneyed caricatures. They are real and rich. If not, this story could not have gotten past page three.
One group of characters, though, does not surprise or enrich: bureaucrats and politicians who, in an election year with a president up for re-election, follow familiar paths. Anyone who has worked with these kinds of people, or even watched enough television in the vein of "West Wing" or "Commander-in-Chief," won't see many surprises. There are a few, though, and they are very worthwhile.
The story is pretty foreseeable, but not predictable. Not all the way through, that is. Near the end, when the energy is whipping into a storm, astute readers may be able to see where the story is going. This is not necessarily bad. Having an idea of how a story will play out isn't the end of the world because the writer still has to provide the action. In this case, the action is exciting.
Then comes the idea of God and religion.
The masses of "believers" are very present in this book. I do not think Preston is unfair in his portrayal of them, based on some of my own experiences. I just am very afraid of the potential of this group, as presented by the author. If this is likely, I am very fearful for our world.
I also wonder just how skeptical I am about what I consider psychobabble. In the past couple of decades, I have encountered books where people use what I consider insincere language to paint a picture of their faith systems. The words are commonplace and banal, and they skate across the true nature of what their conversation should be. The religious world of Douglas Preston shares this weakness, and that was one of the most singularly disappointing elements of this book.
Having said that, I enjoyed the read. It was quick, exciting and full of ideas that could keep the dinner table humming with conversation for a very long time.
However, I can't take it seriously. It's an action-adventure story that gave me what I expected with a couple of surprises along the way. It's not a serious discussion of life, love and God. It's a novel. And a good library read.
Those who have read this, please leave comments on what you thought about the characters and actions of the "faithful." I really want your thoughts.