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Wednesday, 16 January 2008 00:00

Another mystery mines our fascination with the past

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The Machiavelli Covenant by Allan Folsom. Forge Books,2006. 560 pages

The last 20 years have seen the creation of a special niche within the genre of ÒSuspense NovelsÓ as more and more books have appeared featuring a tiny group of protagonists facing great odds as they uncover some secret from the past.


Possession, The DaVinci Code, The Shadow of the Wind, The BookmanÕs Promise: these are only a few of the books in which the plot involves the recovery of a document from the past or a rediscovery of some ancient secret. Although these works vary widely in their ambitions and their craftsmanship ÑÊPossession is one of the great novels of the late 20th century, while The DaVinci Code is pure schlock ÑÊthey share this general theme of connection to some famous personage or document of the past.

Allan FolsomÕs The Machiavelli Covenant (A Tom Doherty Associates Book, $25.95) is one of the latest newcomers to this growing company of cultural suspense tales. Machiavelli, it turns out, not only wrote The Prince and other books, but also left behind an addendum to his most famous work called The Covenant, a manual of instruction for creating a terror group whose members remain extraordinarily loyal to one another and to the idea of their superiority over their fellow human beings. Marten says of his creation that Machiavelli Òcreated the concept of a secret society made powerful by its membersÕ documented participation in a yearly, very elaborate ritual killing. The idea was that deliberate and verified complicity in murder bound them together in blood and gave them license to operate very aggressively, even ruthlessly as a group knowing they could all hang if what they had done was found out. It would have made for a pretty intimidating bunchÉ.Ó

Former detective Nicholas Marten discovers that his childhood sweetheart, her husband, and their young son have been murdered for political reasons.
Marten sets out to track down the killers, and soon comes to believe that they are involved in some massive plot involving biological terrorism. In the meantime, John Henry Harris, president of the United States, uncovers the plot as well and finds himself forced to flee from his own vice president and certain members of his cabinet.

MartenÕs activities soon attract the attention not only of his enemies, but of beautiful French photojournalist Demi Picard. Soon Marten, Picard, and President Harris have teamed up, and make their way to Montserrat in Spain, where the Machiavellian order has its headquarters. Aided by a heroic cabdriver, Miguel, the trio lays out its plans and prepares to penetrate the Covenant before it can launch a bio-weapon attack on the Middle East.

The action in The Machiavelli Covenant is non-stop; Folsom, author of The Exile, The Day After Tomorrow, and Day of Confession, knows how to make the reader keeping turning pages. He has divided The Machiavelli Covenant into short sections, with the time of day heading each section. He writes strong prose, and delivers revelations about the plot and characters with the force and surprise of a good left hook. He understands how to keep up interest in his story by superb pacing and by creating characters who, though they possess certain talents, allow readers to feel their struggles and pain as they fight their secret war.

Although some readers may wonder why a president would flee his Secret Service protection ÑÊpresidents simply donÕt do this ÑÊPresident Harris has good reason to believe that certain advisers want him dead within a few days. It is, in fact, one of the secret service agents, Hap Daniels, who eventually helps rescue the president.

One unlikely character in the book is Merriman Foxx, a South African who is supposed to be the embodiment of the evil scientist. Foxx seems too much the superman, able to travel the world, create deadly bio-weapons, and still maintain an enormous underground lab at Montserrat containing hundreds of corpses embalmed in tanks. Not only are we never told why Foxx is keeping these corpses in his lab ÑÊwe know he used them for his viral research, but whatÕs the point of keeping them after death? ÑÊbut Folsom never fully explains how Foxx even set up such a lab. A project like this one ÑÊbuilding glass containers, bringing in the embalming fluid, the sheer maintenance required ÑÊwould require a small army of men. In an age in which biological weapons are already real and terrible in our imaginations, to turn FoxxÕs laboratory into some sort of Dr. Mengele experimental project seems overdone and ridiculous.

Despite these reservations, readers who enjoy action and suspense will find plenty of both in The Machiavelli Covenant.

¥¥¥

Luc SanteÕs No Smoking (ISBN: 2-84323-616-9) is packaged in a cardboard box made to look like a pack of cigarettes. Inside that box is a book with hundreds of pictures and photographs from the last 70 years whose subjects celebrated, comforted, and glorified themselves in part by smoking.

In the last 25 years, we have seen that glamorization entirely reversed, so that smoking a cigarette today in public constitutes an act of utter rebellion. Where we once made the cigarette a symbol of sophistication and elegance, today we demonize smokers, forcing them to pay heavy taxes on a pleasure or a habit even as we forbid them the enjoyment of that pleasure. The same governments, both state and national, that so harshly condemn smoking allow wine and beer in every corner gas station, permit pornography on the Internet, promote the teaching of ridiculous ideas in schools and in the public arena, permit the consumption of legalized addictive drugs, and even authorizes the dropping of bombs on innocent peoples. No smoking, though: tobacco, even in the form of a pipe or a cigar, may kill you.

Smokers, ex-smokers and perhaps even a few non-smokers will enjoy Luc SanteÕs funereal celebration of tobacco.

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