David S. Brody,
Cabal of the Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
(Martin & Lawrence Press, 2009)

Last fall, by some stroke of fate or folly, I found myself attending the Alexandria Scottish Heritage Fair in my northern Virginia hometown and being drawn to a tent that stood apart from the rest, with their meager assemblage of not-so-authentic foods and crafts. At this wallflower tent, with its banner proclaiming something like "Did the Scottish Discover America?" and its displays being knocked down regularly by the gusty winds of the day, I became the captive audience for a time of a scholarly woman who plied me with photocopies of brochures with titles like "Sinclair Footprints in North America," "The Zeno Narrative" and "Newport Tower" and expounded with great enthusiasm upon the notion that one Prince Henry Sinclair of Scotland in 1398 led an expedition that reached Nova Scotia and even Massachusetts, and that much intriguing archeological evidence remains to point to this Pre-Columbian achievement.

At first, I was reminded more than a little of an author I was once similarly buttonholed by; he had an awful lot to say about how the geometric relations of a bunch of landscape features in the Cydonia region of Mars proved that aliens had been at work there, and that the leaders of NASA had gone to astonishing lengths to hide this evidence from amateur researchers such as himself. But the woman at the Scottish fair tent seemed less, well, insane, and went so far as to write down the title and author's name of a forthcoming tome that would lay out all of the arguments for changing the history books to indicate New England felt the tread of European boots well before the Pilgrims and Puritans arrived. Cabal of the Westford Knight is that book, and so, properly hooked by the tent lady (whom I suspect is among those listed in the author's acknowledgments), I just had to read it when the opportunity presented itself.

My first surprise was that Cabal turns out to be fiction, albeit based, with the exception of one final flight of nearly Indiana Jones-ish fantasy, on a lot of real North American sites and suppositions about what the allegedly Prince Henry-related artifacts at those sites should tell us about the time he spent on this side of the pond. Presenting these ideas in the guise of a thriller allows for young, good-looking and not especially Ph.D.-level heroes to be compelled by shadowy forces and an assassin with a heart of gold to run around the countryside pulling together in one week all the scraps and rumors of scraps of evidence necessary to blow the hinges off a hundreds-year-old conspiracy, the details of which would shake the foundations of both church and state. I guess that's what it takes to get people to read a story like this, but at least our main hero, Cameron Thorne, is easier to take seriously than most characters in such stories; he is neither an aloof Tom Hanks egghead nor an impulsive Nicholas Cage manchild in the face of the secrets he works to uncover. He's an easy-to-like guy, what with his do-gooder street creds being established by his underemployment due to taking a stand on principle against his former law firm employer on a case involving pedophilia in the priesthood, by his diabetes keeping him from being superhuman, and by his determination to see the story through for the sake of helpers who have been hurt or killed along the way.

Likewise, not quite run-of-the-mill heroine help in Cabal comes in the form of Amanda Spencer, an engaging and brainy Brit who gets sunburned easily and isn't kept nearly as much in the loop on Prince Henry's leavings in North America as her introduction in the story seems at first to suggest.

My second surprise is how well the plot works, given that it ends up covering much of the same "Jesus married and had a kid and evil Vatican splinter groups will murder on a whim to hide it" ground as the oft-imitated The Da Vinci Code, but with less globe-hopping and less glamorous locales. It doesn't hurt that Brody sets up some nice misdirection about who is doing what and why related to this concept early in the story, and then takes it several logical steps farther in terms of why it would have been covered up by later religious leaders and what the implications might be if the purported evidence, much of which, it seems, ties heavily into Prince Henry's expedition as theorized by his staunchest fans, were finally paid attention to by more modern scholars.

Brody doesn't set the action-genre world on fire with his chase scenes, nor does he build much in the way of suspense about whether good will triumph over not-so-good, but he delivers an intellectually challenging and rewarding yarn with good travel tips and a genuinely satisfying romance thrown in, to boot. The plot is perhaps hampered by a few too many villains obfuscating the trail of evidence, a few too many supporting characters phoning in timely historical hints just when they are needed, and a few too many "off-screen" deaths instead of "on-screen" moments of tension to keep our heroes motivated in their mission, yet Cabal maintains a pace that well serves the goal of laying out the findings and theories of various real-world researchers in a rational manner, despite the fictional milieu.

If it irks some readers that the breakthrough "discoveries" that drive the main characters on to the next scenic point on the adventure map tend to come from them mashing all the factoids and guesswork about vaguely possible actions that Prince Henry or the ancient Church or the Knights Templar or the Masons might have taken into whatever version seems to best suite the author's pet theories, well, isn't that the way "real" history books about essentially impossible-to-prove events have been produced for a long time? It's an easy quibble to overlook when the characters are as engaging and the payoff is as tantalizing, and yet down-to-earth, as we get here. If true-to-life historians and archeologists someday find anything half as interesting as what Brody, the tent lady and others of their ilk think is out there yet to be found about Prince Henry, the real world could suddenly get a whole lot more interesting as fact and fiction collide.

review by
Gary Cramer

16 May 2009

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