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The last couple of Chris Kuzneski books have been a little disappointing. His Payne and Jackson adventures have always been shallow and followed a certain formula but they have also been high octane thrillers that were fun to read. The last couple, on the other hand, felt a little strained, as though the author was running out of inspiration. I picked up The Death Relic not really hoping for a great deal but actually found it one of the better titles in the series.
As ever, it features Kuzneski's ex-special forces soldiers Jonathan Payne and David Jackson (DJ). When they receive a call for help from Maria Pelati (last seen in Sword of God), they race off to Mexico to help her. There they become embroiled in the search for a missing archaeologist and (yet another) mysterious object, "The Death Relic": apparently a weapon feared by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations during the Spanish Conquest of the 16th century.
By now, you know what to expect from Payne and Jackson novels: minimum characterisation, lots of banter between the main characters, plenty of running around exotic locations outwitting and shooting bad guys and the eventual uncovering of some sort of treasure. When it works, it's a lot of fun.
It's ironic, then, to report that in some regards, The Death Relic is possibly the least action packed Payne & Jones book to date. At times progress is quite slow and it doesn't have that same breathless pace as earlier titles. Certainly, there is less of the constant rushing from place to place or racing from one exotic location to another - around the first two hundred pages are set in just two locations (both within Mexico) and apart from the opening pages, all the action takes place in a single country. For a Payne and Jackson book, this is unprecedented!
You might think this would rob the book of one of its most appealing features. In fact, this slight change of focus allows Kuzneski to develop a fresh angle to his characters. Rather than racing from place to place making one unlikely discovery after another, the plot forces Payne & Jackson to use more of their detective skills. For once their brains are more important than their brawn as they have to work out what has happened, the identity of the mysterious relic and the location of the missing archaeologist. This gives the characters a new lease of life and The Death Relic feels sufficiently different to previous Payne & Jackson adventures.
That's not to say that the book is slow-paced and there is still plenty of action. There's a whole sub-plot surrounding a kidnapping and ransom demand, whilst the second half of the book returns to the tried and tested formula of the two ex-soldiers running around, getting into tricky situations, shooting bad guys and uncovering long-lost secrets. In short, whether you like the more thoughtful Payne and Jones or the more action-oriented versions, there's something for everyone.
Of course, the plot is hugely shallow, often relying on massive coincidences or strokes of luck to progress, but that's the nature of books of this type. It's readable and fun, the perfect lazy Sunday afternoon book. It's not particularly challenging and won't take you very long to read, but you'll enjoy it while it lasts.
Thanks to a stronger story, the characters come across better, too. In recent books, the banter between Payne and Jackson started to become a little tiresome, feeling forced and (at times) a little unpleasant and nasty. Whilst the two leads remain as shallow as ever, they have recovered their former sense of fun.
The Death Relic also marks are return to form for Kuzneski's style, which was beginning to grate. It's true that he still has a tendency to lecture and some parts of his book still read more like a history book or travelogue than a novel. For European readers, he can also be rather patronising at times. He tends to assume that all his readers are dumb Americans who have never been out of their own country (possibly even their own State) and so feels the need to explain anything vaguely non-American to them.
On the plus side, he has rediscovered his ability to write prose which, like the rest of the book, is shallow but fun. Chapters and even paragraphs are short and there are regular breaks in the text, making it easy to pick up and read in short chunks. The stripped down nature of his prose also means the book proceeds at a cracking pace. As with so much else, his prose is never going to win him any literary awards, but it does the job it's there to do.
The Death Relic is available new for around £4.50 in paperback or a pound or so less in the Kindle edition. However, it's the sort of title that will soon start popping up even cheaper in charity or second hand book shops, so personally, I'd advise holding fire until you find one of those. Although it's an enjoyable read, it's the sort of book that you're only likely to read once, so the less you pay, the better .
The Death Relic
© Copyright SWSt 2012