Viking Penguin: New York
Tom Knox has again authored an imaginative—and violent—thriller, using a literary device he first employed in his first effort, The Genesis Secret, to great effect. He initially spins two tales—widely divergent in terms of place, character and plot—and then brings them inexorably closer until they finally merge in a near-cataclysmic denouement. He also uses two very dark and enigmatic archaeological sites as the scenes for his fictional exploration of the heart of darkness—mankind’s propensity to do great evil: The Plain of Jars in war-torn Laos and the limestone cave system of Cham des Bondons in a remote part of the South of France.
Archaeologist Julia Kerrigan’s fifteen year career has been lackluster at best until her excavations in the caves of Cham des Bondons reveal three 7,000 year old skulls that show signs of trepanation (holes surgically drilled) in the foreheads and the equally ancient skeletal remains of a man, a woman and two children with multiple projectile points lodged in them. But her excitement at this career-changing find is quickly dashed when her supervisor and mentor, Ghislaine Quinelles, dismissed her discoveries as having no importance and he basically fires her, telling her to leave France and go back to the United States where her paltry skills can be put to better use excavating thirty year old post offices! Distraught almost beyond words, she seeks solace from her friend and colleague, Annika Neumann, who is also working on the Cham des Bondons site and had been Ghislaine’s lover back in their student days at the Sorbonne in the rebellious late 1960s. A call from the police informs them that Ghislaine has been brutally murdered—brutally and sadistically slashed to death. As Julia’s world seems to spin out of control, Annika soon becomes the next victim of this crazed killer. But Annika has managed to leave an unfinished e-mail for Julia that begins to tell of the great guilt she has borne for many decades, a guilt that goes back to the mid-1970s when she and Ghislaine and other Marxist anthropologists, archaeologists and biologists participated in unspeakable atrocities sponsored by the governments of Cambodia—then called Kampuchea—and Red China. She is killed before she can explain the nature of these activities, but Julia finds herself driven to find the meaning behind the brutal deaths of her friends and colleagues. She follows the trail of Ghislaine’s research to the Parisian Museum of Man and there discovers a link between the trepanned skulls she has discovered in Europe and similar practices in what was Indo-China—now present-day Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and she sets out to Southeast Asia to solve the mystery.
Meanwhile, down on his luck photojournalist Jake Thurby is hanging out in the backwater Laotian town of Vang Vieng. His career, like that of Julia Kerrigan’s, is going nowhere fast. But he gets a tip from an old friend, a world-weary war correspondent knocking around Southeast Asia, that he should check out Chemda Tek, a beautiful young Cambodian lawyer working for the UN, who is researching the war crimes that took place on the Laotian Plain of Jars under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s; perhaps she would need a photojournalist to help her document her studies. The two join forces and proceed to uncover evidence of incredible brutality conducted thirty years earlier. But it is evident that very recent murders of participants in those long-ago atrocities means that the past is not yet over—and those present day murderers now have Jake and Chemda in their crosshairs—particularly after the trail takes them to the Plain of Jars, and in those eponymous stone jars are skulls, some of which are thousands of years old, showing signs of trepanning. Fleeing across Laos, Cambodia Thailand with killers on their heels, Chemda and Jake follow a trail of death and barbarity that leads them to a darkly malevolent research facility in the wilds of Tibet.
This is where the lives of Jake and Chemda intertwine with that of Julia Kerrigan and the three of them face a contemporary evil whose roots go back to the time of Early Man.
This novel has all the ingredients of a grand thriller, but it simply fails to deliver. The main characters, while mildly interesting on the surface, have no depth and are really rather trite and boring. But good plotting can often offset poor characterization; but nothing can offset poor writing and the author’s imaginative storyline is too often marred by seemingly endless purple prose, discordant metaphors and similes, and curious verbs.
A few examples might demonstrate how disruptive they can be to an otherwise engaging plot: “The whole place vibrated with memories, with jungly and luxuriant nostalgia; (p. 79)… “The sleek Peugeot oiled into the drive with an authoritative scrunch; (p. 87)…”Wearied by his own anxiety, and the sadistic heat, Jake lay back against the uncomfortable planks of the pirogue, and almost immediately felt the mermaids of sleep dragging him under.” (p. 110)…”The shock was arctic. Liquidly chilling. What was that?” (p. 130). And so it goes for much of the novel’s 430 pages.
Two trowels for The Lost Goddess.