Book Review

I fin­ished William Martin’s The Lost Constitution (Forge Books, 2007) this after­noon, reluc­tantly. Up until last week, when I spot­ted the novel on the new arrivals table at the book­store, I had not heard of Martin, who began writ­ing the adven­tures of his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment hunter Peter Fallon in the 1970s. The premise of the novel caught my eye: an anno­tated early draft of the U.S. Constitution exists and both sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum want it badly enough to mur­der for it. A fas­ci­nat­ing idea, much like an American Da Vinci Code adven­ture (although I count the film National Treasure as the cur­rent holder of that title). Plus, it tempted me with a cli­max at Fenway on the first night of the World Series. Naturally, I bought it.

What faced me when I opened the pages was essen­tially two nov­els. The first was set in 2007 or 2008 and fol­lowed the attempts of Fallon and his travel writer girl­friend Evangeline to find the Constitution. The sec­ond book fol­lowed the story of the doc­u­ment itself as it passed from hand to hand over the cen­turies, begin­ning with Will Pike, an assis­tant to a del­e­gate at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, circa 1787.

From the begin­ning pages, the present-day story is weak. Within the first two pages, we find the hero speak­ing to a con­vict in prison, who tips him off to a major ter­ror plot. Fallon, do-gooder that he is, lets the FBI know, and the Bureau seizes an arse­nal that was meant for a major oper­a­tion on the Fourth of July. The inci­dent sparks debate among the politi­cos of Martin’s world, who then move to repeal the sec­ond amend­ment. The stage is set.

However when the cur­tain goes up, the stage is far too con­fus­ing to fol­low. Names rush past the reader’s eye with­out any con­cern for hav­ing to remem­ber them later. Now, I con­sider myself a solid reader (A master’s in English lit­er­a­ture will make you one if you weren’t before.), but I couldn’t keep all the names in this novel straight until the end, when a con­ve­nient series of flash­backs explains the entire plot for us.

Fallon’s involve­ment in the search is con­vo­luted. There is no rea­son why he should care so much about this doc­u­ment. As a dealer of rare books, you would expect him to find a busi­ness angle. Instead, he comes off as the never-wrong hero who bravely strad­dles the fence between the left and right. And those extremes are drawn by Martin’s writ­ing as extremes. There is no human­ity to any of the char­ac­ters. The pas­sion­ate gun-hating sen­a­tor is noth­ing more than that. The Maine mili­ti­a­men are gun-nuts who speak with “char­ac­ter­is­tic” bad gram­mar. Even his girl­friend serves lim­ited pur­poses. One: she tells Peter when she things peo­ple are lying, which is all the time. Two: she cracks wise at every­thing. Three: she hates guns and won’t let any­one, even we weary read­ers, for­get it.

All in all, the his­tor­i­cal scenes are writ­ten bet­ter than the present day scenes, which reduce to men­tions of brand names and far too detailed lists of what the char­ac­ters ate for din­ner. I don’t care if their wine was an ’87 or a ’64. I don’t care if it was red or white, and I cer­tainly don’t care if their fish was soaked in rice wine vine­gar as a mari­nade. If I want to know what peo­ple eat, I’ll check the Food Network.

On top of that, the char­ac­ters are in their 40s, and extremely healthy for their age. Neither they, nor their friends, worry about money, as they all seem to have an end­less sup­ply of it. Why should the reader care for rich 40-somethings eat­ing gourmet food with media moguls at moun­tain resorts? The char­ac­ters from the his­tor­i­cal sec­tions are much more believ­able and real­is­tic, but they are also just sketches, peo­ple to be iden­ti­fied by a defin­ing prin­ci­ple and not by any innate humanness.

And even that tan­gled his­tory degrades by the end of the novel. The qual­ity of the scenes dimin­ish as they get closer to the present, much as the integrity of the orig­i­nal Pike fam­ily patri­archs dimin­ish in their wide­spread off­spring. We are left with a mish­mash cli­max of unex­plain­able vio­lence, pre­dictable mor­al­iz­ing, and a post-climax return of the vil­lain that is far too Hollywood.

If Martin wanted to write a fast-paced best­seller, he might have fol­lowed Dan Brown’s for­mula more closely. If he wanted to sell it to a pro­duc­tion stu­dio, he should have writ­ten it as a script in the first place. In the end, as a nov­el­ist here, Martin fails. As a plot­ter, he suc­ceeds some­what bet­ter, but I would still rec­om­mend spend­ing your $25 on some­thing more entertaining.