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To date, I've enjoyed Chris Kuzneski's books. They're good easy reading - shallow, undemanding but fast-paced thrillers that are exactly the sort of thing you need to help you relax and unwind. Sure, they're not great literature but despite some stylistic weaknesses and occasionally annoying writing, they were fun to read. Unfortunately, The Secret Crown is possibly a bridge too far; fast-paced narrative and high octane adventures are no longer sufficient to paper over some pretty major deficiencies.
As with all Kuzneski's books so far, The Secret Crown follows the on-going adventures of ex-special ops soldiers Jon Payne and Darren Jones. Tipped off by Kaiser, an old black market contact, they head to Germany on the trail of the mysterious treasure of King Ludwig of Bavaria, nicknamed The Swan King. Needless to say, it's not long before others get wind of their quest and try to stop them.
Straightaway, there is a problem with the plot: most people will be completely unfamiliar with the true story of King Ludwig of Bavaria and probably not remotely interested in learning more. The plots of previous books have focused on myths and ideas which will at least be passing familiar to most readers (The Knights Templar, Nostradamus). Here it feels as though Kuzneski, having covered all the major "mysteries", is reduced to scrabbling around for anything to which he can attach his characters.
This raises two serious issues: Number one: the plot just isn't terribly engaging. Before I read Kuzneski's book, I'd never heard of either The Swan King or Ludwig (despite the author's preposterous claim that his history is taught to every schoolchild in Europe). And there's a good reason for that: in the overall scheme of things, it's not exactly that interesting. Sure, there's a mystery there (Ludwig was rather eccentric, died in mysterious circumstances and left behind him rumours of a vast, hidden treasure), but most people are not going to give two hoots about it. The plot completely failed to pique my interest and having read it, I'm still completely indifferent to Ludwig's fate.
The second issue is perhaps more serious. Since the basic plot details are likely to be unfamiliar to at least 95% of his readers, Kuzneski has to spend a lot of time establishing the facts and explaining their significance. This results in a lot of artificial sounding conversations between characters and long narrative passages to supply this information. Reading this book sometimes feels more like listening to a history lecture, than reading a thriller you are reading for pleasure. Kuzneski has always had this tendency show off how much research he has done but this is far more intrusive in The Secret Crown. The overall effect is to slow the plot right down and given that the secret of Kuzneski's success lies in his breakneck narratives, this is a serious weakness. Aside from anything else, it allows the reader too much time to stop and think how ridiculous and unlikely the story is.
This issue showed in the pace at which I read the book. Previous instalments took me no more than a couple of days to read because they were fun. This one was more of a chore to get through, and there were times when I seriously questioned whether it was worth the effort.
Inevitably, these issues expose weaknesses elsewhere in the book, particularly with regard to the lead characters, Payne and Jones. They have always been badly written and shallow, but their sense of fun combined with the high action quota hid this to some extent. Faced with a weak, unengaging plot, the characters start to become wearing.
Until now, the banter between the two leads has been funny. Their constant bickering and friendly sniping even when faced with serious danger added a lighter element which counter-balanced the absurd plots. In The Secret Crown, their "banter" starts to have a slightly nasty edge to it, particularly when it is directed at other characters, when it comes across as mean-spirited.
The banter is also overused and too over-the-top, to the point where it starts to overshadow the plot. Virtually every page contains at least one wisecrack from one of the men; sometimes entire pages are taken up by them. This reduces parts of the book to the level of childish schoolboy humour and it starts to feel like Kuzneski is parodying his own creations.
It also appears that Kuzneski is trying a little too hard at times to please his long-standing readers. This is most apparent in the way in which he shoehorns in all his major recurring characters (Payne, Jones, Petr Ulster, Nick Dial). Fair enough, some fit naturally into the plot; others really do feel shoehorned in, as thought sub-plots have been artificially just so that they can be included. OK, Kuzneski's books have always felt formulaic, but with this one you can almost hear the author mentally ticking off each element on his List of Things a Payne & Jones Book Must Include.
On the plus side, when Kuzneski does manage to stop lecturing and actually turns to the plot, he once again shows that he can write a fast-paced thriller. The sequences in which Payne and Jones actually get to strut their stuff, showing off their special ops skills and stopping bad guys are just as much fun (and ludicrous) as ever. In some ways, this makes the book even more frustrating: the good bits show that the characters have not run out of steam just yet, and give glimpses of what The Secret Crown could have been.
I'm not ready to write off Chris Kuzneski just yet - his previous books have all been fun, shallow reads that have kept me entertained from start to finish and every author is entitled a bad or mediocre book every so often. With a bit of luck, Kuzneski has now got his out of the way and whilst I'm not awaiting Payne and Jones' next adventure with quite as much anticipation, neither am I prepared to say they've reached the end of the line just yet.
The Secret Crown
© Copyright SWSt 2012