When a brilliant American battleship gun designer dies in an apparent suicide, the man's grief-stricken daughter turns to the legendary Van Dorn Detective Agency to clear her father's name. Van Dorn puts his chief investigator on the case, and Isaac Bell soon realizes that the clues point not to suicide, but to murder. When more suspicious deaths follow, it becomes clear that someone - an elusive spy - is orchestrating the destruction of America's brightest technological minds.
Reviewed on 18th June 2010
Isaac Bell's investigation into a weapons designer's death turns into an early attempt at US counter-espionage as he battles with the agent known as 'the Spy'. It's a disappointing twist which takes what was a promising series of historical detection into something more akin to a modern day thriller.
The previous Isaac Bell novels have focussed on investigating murder and sabotage - this is the first time the crime has become one of international warfare. Bell's character is more and more anachronistic, and seems to be written as a modern thinker in a backward world. The story goes out of it's way to include anti-Semitism that Bell is quick to refute, but it is entirely unnecessary to the plot. In several of the action scenes Bell seemed to almost become Juan Cabrillo, the main character in Cussler's Oregon Files series, to the extent that at some points I was confused by his lack of false leg.
Unlike the previous two novels, which were very much train and car based, this one stars boats. While this is more the traditional Cussler arena, it felt out of place. The characters have become less well defined. Bell is no longer an ace investigator hunting his prey, but more bumbling along making very little progress until 'the spy' reveals himself. Marion has become a famous film director (which seems implausible for a woman of that era), and although conveyed for the most part as a strong modern female suddenly goes soppy at the end.
The title character is irritating in the way he is played. Throughout he is referred to just as 'the spy', as if to justify the book's title, even when we know who he is (although as we later find it is to keep his alter ego from us), which is really grating. The book continues the idea of having an epilogue set years later, which before has served to wrap up loose ends, but this time it's completely redundant to the plot. Another chapter dealing with the immediate aftermath would have been more satisfying.
Overall then it's a fall from the lofty heights of 'The Chase' - the first Isaac Bell novel - and I'm saddened that such a wonderful character has been allowed to be treated this way. I think Cussler may be spreading himself too thinly with these books and it is leading the writing to suffer.