The Excalibur Codex by James Douglas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
‘James Douglas’, apart from being a Scottish friend of Robert The Bruce in the 13 and 14th Century, is of course the alter-ego of the really rather super Douglas Jackson (I’m guessing that THAT is actually his real name!). James Douglas comes out to play when Douglas Jackson takes time off from his day-job as the purveyor of all things Roman and legionary, writing books like Hero-, Avenger-, Defender- and indeed, Sword of Rome (tbc).
The Excalibur Codex, for new readers, is the third of James Douglas’ thriller novels featuring art historian and all-round thinking man’s action man, Jamie Saintclair. The Doomsday Testament (2011) and The Isis Covenant (2012) introduced us to the good Mr Saintclair and his knack for being in the right place at the wrong time on the trail of various long-lost artistic relics. The Excalibur Codex takes it from there. But, if you haven’t read the first two, that’s ok, this one is self-contained enough and you can go back to the others just fine after reading this.
The first two books have been action-packed, but also with plenty for the brain to get its teeth into along the way. Likewise The Excalibur Codex. It begins with a huge, sit up straight in your seat and pay attention, James Bond movie opening-style bang, which is, as you’d expect from Douglas Jackson, extremely well choreographed and well written. It reminds us, if we needed reminding, that another of his strengths is the brutal battle scene. And this opening is a battle scene. It’s not for the faint-hearted and I can well understand someone who maybe gets hold of a copy, perhaps from their local library (without the ‘I’ve paid for it so I’ll finish it!’, inner voice urging them on), stopping half way through the first couple of chapters. That’s fine. But when I read something so convincingly ‘real’ as this opening, my first thought is “why didn’t I hear about this on the news?!”
Having said that and hopefully without coming over all PC and Jane Green on your asses, I did feel some of the (as the opening event develops) graphic detail could have been toned down a little. Just a little, Without taking the edge off it. By the time the bit I’m thinking about came in, the ‘job’ of shocking us into submission had already been done. It was a bit unnecessary and didn’t fit with the overall style of the rest of the novel. The only other quibble I have with the start, well more the later parts of the first half of the book, is really a result of this opening action. I did feel Saintclair recovered a lot more quickly than I thought he would have, given his emotional attachment to the person/people involved. I’m not saying he should have worn sackcloth and ashes for the rest of the book, or gone around babbling in a daze, but he did seem to get ‘back in the saddle’ a little more quickly than I would have imagined he (and I know I) would have done.
Also, I thought Douglas could have dealt with the Cologne – and other – bombing(s) he set up, a little more thoroughly. I’m not wanting the graphic detail as I said, but setting it up, then the characters hearing about it third hand in passing while they’re in Madrid, then rushing on with the high-ranking Nazi’s story, diluted it almost to the point of me forgetting all about it.
But these are really rather minor quibbles, when set against the tremendous enjoyment one gets from the rest of the book. And maybe more to do with me than the book. So, there you have it – a very powerful opening and we’re well set for the rest of the story. And that is? An old friend of Saintclair’s gets him to help with the decoding and interpretation of a German war veteran’s mysterious last will and testament. The codex of the book’s title, in particular. In short, they need to find the sword Excalibur. Yes, that one. It was last seen being used for an ancient ritual at a castle somewhere in East Prussia during the early days of World War II, a ritual that involved Reinhard Heydrich and many other top Nazis. Saintclair’s search for clues and answers swiftly takes him (and us!) from England to Germany, to eastern Europe, over to Spain, the USA and eventually up to Scotland. Scotland – where most myths seem to start and have their end, according to historical adventure thriller writers. Well, those I seem to be reading at the moment at least.
I said it in my review of the previous James Douglas/Jamie Saintclair thriller, that his descriptive passages set during the second world war were/are ‘simply stunning’. Here he does it again. Really effortlessly evocative and once again, for me, the highlight(s) of the book. Having said that, when Saintclair is on ‘home ground’, so to speak, in Scotland, you can really feel, through the wonderfully expressive prose, James Douglas’ passion for the land and the people there. I have been to and driven along the route Saintclair takes to Scotland on many a fabulous Scottish holiday, and though it is at least 15 years since I was that way, I could ‘see’ the route and the towns and villages in my mind as he travelled and I read. Superb.
I have down the years, read fairly widely on the history of Germany, pre- and during-World War II (I also read a lot in my youth, about the legend of and the search for, evidence of the ‘real’ King Arthur actually) and clearly a lot of mysticism and unexplained, mystical happenings have been, can be and are, dropped in the ideological black hole that was the Nazis. But James Douglas’ ideas are more convincing than many I’ve read. If I may be so bold, I would actually really like to see ‘James Douglas’ write a thriller completely set during the Second World War. Maybe the latter stages, amidst all the fire and confusion, the smoke and the sound. Maybe Jamie Saintclair’s father or grandfather, or mother(s) for that matter, could have been mixed up in something or other back then. I think he could do a really good job there. Certainly enough to get mentioned amongst the David Downings and Philip Kerrs of that world. Just a thought.
I tried to be sceptical to start with, I was unsure if he could do it again, but I’m more than pleased to admit I enjoyed The Excalibur Codex almost as much as is entirely legal. I began each reading session with, as the great Greg Lake once sang ‘excited eyes’ and was only disappointed when there was no more to read. And I managed to go through the whole book without once thinking of the ‘Excalibur’ film.