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the novel on the new arrivals table at the bookstore, I had not heard of Martin, who began writing the adventures of historical document hunter Peter Fallon in the 1970s.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.