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"Third time pays for all" or so the saying goes. Yet, in the world of trilogies, it's often the final part which lets the side down, providing an unsatisfactory climax to an otherwise excellent series.
And so it proves in The Gilded Seal, the third in James Twining's novels featuring reformed art thief Tom Kirk. It's not that The Gilded Seal is a bad it's just that, when compared with its predecessors, it lacks the same sense of sparkle and zip.
Part of the problem is that the plot always feels a little silly. The first two books (centring on a rare coin and a lost Nazi secret) were based on fact and so always felt plausible. The Gilded Seal, on the other hand, is (as far as I can tell) mostly fictional and surrounds the efforts of Kirk and his allies to uncover the mystery surrounding the Mona Lisa and her connection to Napoleon Bonaparte.
It always feels a little inconsequential, irrelevant and insubstantial. It's as though Twining exhausted his historical options with his first two books and so has resorted to his own imagination for this one (albeit with a smattering of facts), and never quite comes up with the goods. There was always the danger with this series that it would be little more than one of many Dan Brown-like rip-offs. But whereas the first two books avoided this pitfall by providing enough new ideas to keep the reader entertained, the third stumbles into it.
It took me quite a while to get into this book, which is not really a good sign for a thriller. This is partly down to the fact that the plot is not as gripping. I never really believed in the central concept or care about how things ended. The central "secrets" are so bland that it really didn't matter to me whether the "truth" was uncovered or not.
There's also a rather safe feeling to the book. Twining has established his central characters - Tom, Archie and Dominique - and it's clear he's not going to jeopardise a potentially lucrative franchise by letting anything terminal happen to them. In the earlier books, there was sometimes a genuine sense of danger and tension. In The Gilded Seal, you are never in any real doubt who will survive and who is expendable.
Twining also makes the classic mistake of subtly changing his main character. Previously, Kirk has always been a loveable rogue, an updated Indiana Jones. Whilst those elements survive, he also shows a far more ruthless streak, ready to kill or inflict pain if it will get him what he wants. This has the effect of making him far less sympathetic; not good enough to be a proper hero, but not bad enough to be a likeable anti-hero.
The return of Jennifer Brown (a character from the first book) also smacks a little of desperation and doesn't come off. It upsets the balance in the relationship between Kirk, Archie and Dominique, damaging the dynamic which Twining worked hard to build up, and adding little new to the overall plot. Her role in the plot always feels a little forced, a little too convenient and co-incidental. Plotting of her character arc feels as though it is simply following the path needed by the plot, and lacks the organic feel that characterised the earlier titles.
Whilst it might be the weakest of the three books, The Gilded Seal is still an enjoyable enough thriller, although it feels more like disposable entertainment, rather than something you might re-read in future. It is helped by the fact that James Twining knows how to write a fast-paced book. His chapters are relatively short and the plot features frequent cliff-hangers or new revelations which make you want to keep reading and find out how they are resolved. Twining has a very natural, readable style which makes this book perfect for holiday reading. Even if you've not read the earlier books, you could still read this as a stand-alone novel. Where knowledge of Kirk's previous adventures is required, Twining provides this (albeit in a sometimes clumsy way), so that new readers can be brought up to speed, without boring his existing audience and there is plenty of fun to be had out of some of the situations that are dreamt up.
Despite some concerns, The Gilded Seal is a perfectly competent thriller in its own right. All the usual elements are there - a centuries old mystery, a trail of clues, exotic locations and a ruthless bad guy who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. If it lacks a certain fizz and zip, that's only because Twining has set the bar high with Kirk's previous outings, leading you to expect just a little bit more than The Gilded Seal ultimately delivers.
The Gilded Seal
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