St. Martin’s Press: New York
January, 2018 (pb)
A little over ten years ago I reviewed Crusader Gold, the second volume of the Jack Howard archaeology series. I found the book to be very entertaining—a guilty pleasure, I labeled it. I thought his major characters—both heroes and villains—to be a bit one-dimensional and the plot “absurd and outlandish”—but delightful nonetheless.
I now return to Jack Howard, intrepid underwater archaeologist and his engineer sidekick, Costas Kazantzakis, for Testament, the ninth entry in this series, and find it still delightful but with a great deal more depth and breadth—to both the characters and the plot.
In a thought-provoking prologue Gibbins turns the clock back to 584 BC, the time of King Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of ancient Israel. At the request of Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, the very real Phoenician explorer Hanno sails through the Straits of Gibraltar, down the west coast of Africa and up the east coast to the Horn of Africa, to deliver the Ark of the Covenant to safety from the Babylonian invaders.
Twenty five hundred years later Jack and Costas are investigating what might very well be a Phoenician ship sunk off the coast of Cornwall, England, when they are assigned by the International Maritime University to monitor the salvaging of a World War II British freighter, the SS Clan Macpherson, believed to have been sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Sierra Leone. A secret, and only recently discovered ship’s manifest listed two tons of gold among its cargo. Jack and Costas were to assure international authorities that all rules and best practices of salvaging were adhered to, especially since the Clan Macpherson had protected status as a maritime gravesite. Especially problematic was the fact that the salvage operation was being conducted by Anatoly Lander, a one-time close friend to Jack and more recently a bitter adversary. While exploring the freighter as it perches precariously on the rim of Africa’s continental shelf, Jack and Costas make three momentous discoveries: the cargo of gold ingots, a plaque with Phoenician writing and a pictograph hinting at a spectacular event—and an unexploded British torpedo penetrating the ship’s hull. The SS Clan Macpherson had been sunk, not by a German U-Boat but by a British submarine!
The adventure takes off from this point and hurtles to a bloody climax in a battle with Landor and his hired Somali gangsters off the coast of Somalia—all in search of ancient treasures cached in a Nazi submarine long forgotten in a coastal cavern. Woven into the tapestry of what is essentially a treasure hunt are beguiling side trips into Carthaginian archaeology, the intrigues of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II, the 1868 assault by British troops on King Theodore of Abyssinia, and the creative re-imaging of the voyages of Phoenician explorers Hanno and Himilco. All of these disparate interludes inexorably lead the reader to ask: Will Jack and Costas actually find the Ark of the Covenant?
This is rollicking high adventure at its best! Ancient history; the Ark of the Covenant; Somali pirates; underwater archaeology; Nazis; Bletchley Park—what’s not to love? As in the earlier Crusader’s Gold, the descriptions of dive archaeology—its techniques and technology—are wonderfully conveyed. But in this later work, the characters—particularly Jack and Costas and their immediate circle of associates—have greater depth and dimension to them. And similarly, the plot to Testament, while cunningly imaginative, is not beyond the bounds of believability and thereby strengthens the overall quality of the tale.
Four trowels for David Gibbins’ Testament.