These days, if you're going to write a thriller that involves the quest for a hidden religious artefact, you're really going to have to pull out all the stops. Most of the really obvious stuff (Jesus' body, the one true cross, the Knights Templar etc.) have been done and increasingly authors are reduced to either rehashing these ideas or scrabbling around to come with something new, but a bit obscure.
This is where Sam Bourne's novel The Last Testament comes in. Set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a series of high profile murders threaten to derail the peace talks. A retired, former top level negotiator is brought into to try and get matters back on track, but soon finds herself distracted by a new mystery surrounding the death of a vociferous, leading anti-peace protestor.
The Last Testament's chief problem is that it doesn't really do a great deal and takes a long time in which to do it. The plotting is dull and could most kindly be described as pedestrian. Bourne (a pseudonym for a leading journalist in Middle Eastern affairs) certainly knows his way around the complex matter of the region's politics and he works all this information into his narrative to provide a realistic picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The trouble is a book like this does not benefit from such incredible detail. It needs to be fast-paced, hitting the reader with revelation after revelation so quickly that it leaves them reeling and never gives them time to stop and think how ludicrous it all is. Unfortunately, The Last Testament seems to think that a new revelation about every 100 pages is perfectly adequate. The Last Testament just doesn't deliver any sense of excitement or fun and, despite the deteriorating backdrop and tit-for-tat reprisals from the two sides, there is no real sense of tension either.
I also didn't find the narrative particularly helpful in this regard. Although the main focus is on lead character Maggie Costello and her new friend Uri, it occasionally switches to other characters (including one of the two murder victims) which leaves the book feeling rather unfocussed at times. To add to the confusion, some of the chapters are even set in the immediate past, before the events we have just read about. I constantly found myself having to readjust my perspective to remember what we had already been told and how these new developments fitted in. In this genre, fitting things together needs to be an immediate, intuitive process, something that creates a fast paced plot, not something that slows it down.
I seriously struggled to work my way through The Last Testament. There were many times when I looked at how many pages I had read felt like I'd made virtually no progress. A good book should be like an exciting journey, effortlessly moving you along and making you feel like you have come a long way from where you started. The Last Testament is more like the M25 on a Friday night in the torrential rain: a journey where you are going nowhere fast. It's rare that I'm tempted to give up on a book once I've started it, but The Last Testament pushed me close.
The characters never ring true and are just as dull as the plot. Maggie Costello is a predictable walking cliché, someone who was formally good at her job (as a top level peace negotiator) now retired following a serious error; except, of course, it's not long before she is lured back into her former role by the US government.
How many times have we seen that? The troubled trouble-shooter lured in for "one last job"? It's about as original as a photocopy of a postcard of a painting and about as appealing, too. Maggie Costello is nothing more than a cipher, there to lead the reader around the book's various locations. Worse, she is rather difficult to care about. The reader never builds any real bond with her and most of the time I found her rather pathetic and self-pitying; not someone I would want to spend my free time with.
The same is true of the lead male character Uri, son of the murdered anti-peace protestor. Despite the fact he has just lost both his parents in quick succession, Uri is more than happy to take off with Maggie -a woman he has only just met - and go off on her crackpot (and boring) investigation. There are vague attempts to justify this on the grounds that it represents a displacement from the mourning process, but this rings hollow and simply makes for a pair of deeply uninteresting lead characters.
Nor are the characters the only hackneyed element. At one stage a character uncovers a major clue by reading the indentations left on a pad of paper by someone who wrote a note on the sheet of paper above it. Come on! That's such an old plot device that I'm pretty certain Arthur Conan Doyle used it in one of his Sherlock Holmes books and these days is a very lazy and predictable way of progressing the plot.
This is not the only plot contrivance either. The only book relies on lazy coincidences and highly unlikely situations (including one very tedious section which takes place entirely in Second Life). You can get away with such unlikely devices if you produce a fast-paced thriller which don't give the reader time to dwell on how silly they are. In a ponderous "thriller" like The Last Testament it's simply another nail in the coffin.
At the time this book was released, I remember seeing the saturation marketing - at ever train station, bookshop etc. - and wondering what it was like. Since I'd not read any of Sam Bourne's stuff, I decided to wait until I could pick it up cheap in a charity shop. That was a really good move. My advice to you is to go one better and don't bother picking it up at all.
The Last Testament
© Copyright SWSt 2012