A passel of possibilities for those cold winter nights

CorrespondentFebruary 12, 2006 

Coming as it does at the interval between the waning of holiday blockbusters and the annual migratory arrival of the first big beach books, today's column celebrates the proud mediocrity of those neglected mysteries consigned to the purgatory of February release.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with mediocrity. Personal grade inflation aside, most of us are mediocre most of the time, right? Mediocre means "not bad," "just fine," even "acceptable." Mediocrity is the philodendron. The Texas leaguer. Tilapia.

For example, Steve Berry's "The Templar Legacy" (Ballentine Books, $24.95, 480 pages) is the umpteenth variation, and the least bad I've read, on a theme played by "The Da Vinci Code." Indeed, in its similar assault on Roman Catholic orthodoxy, one could accurately call "Legacy" "Da Coda Lite."

Berry, whose previous work includes more satisfying historical fiction ("The Romanov Prophecy"), now takes on the murky history and supposed secrets of the Knights Templar, a small military monastic order founded during the Crusades to escort Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. The order grew from its original nine knights to thousands of "soldier-monks" who amassed unparalleled secular power and wealth until a jealous French king wiped them out in the early 12th century.

Or did he? Berry riffs off a durable legend that a few Templars escaped extermination and dispersed into southern France, taking both their immense treasure and "The Great Devise," a First Century document purported to prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead.

To make a way too long story short, Berry introduces Cotton Malone, a former U.S. Justice Department agent turned Copenhagen rare book dealer, who becomes enmeshed in a hunt for the Templars' modern descendants, and for the potentially earth-shaking "Great Devise."

This often absorbing novel includes the international thriller's standard feline-and-rodent chase across Europe, pitting the modern Templars, who also seek their long-lost treasure, against Malone, accompanied by a pick-up team of associates whose motives are as varied as their backgrounds. As in "Da Vinci," Berry injects enough anagrams, cryptic ancient documents and symbolically coded religious paintings to keep Puzzlemaster Will Shortz occupied until the next year that is divisible by the square root of pi.

Despite its unnecessary length and occasionally desultory pace, "The Templar Legacy" will likely satisfy history buffs, religious conspiracy buffs, puzzle buffs and insomniacs. It will ultimately annoy anyone with a small child, a short attention span or an acute aversion to deja vu.

Similarly, Martha Grimes' 20th Superintendent Richard Jury mystery, "The Old Wine Shades" (Viking, $25.95, 341 pages) is just so so-so. For the uninitiated, Grimes' gimmick is to title her Jury stories after an oddly named pub that figures prominently in the novel. This time Jury, suspended by Scotland Yard, walks into the titular pub for a solitary drink. Instead, over a glass of decent port, he encounters a stranger whose bizarre story piques his lately flagging chase instinct.

The man says his best friend was recently institutionalized after his wife, child and dog disappeared while looking at property in rural Surrey. Thing is, the dog came back, but he ain't talking.

Intrigued, and eager to circumvent his suspension, Jury meets the storyteller, an expert in quantum mechanics, for three straight nights at the pub to get the full story. He's almost got it figured when a body suddenly turns up and everything changes.

Too much talk and not enough action. Although the set-up and the core mystery are sufficiently engaging, "The Old Wine Shades" -- despite the welcome reappearance of Jury's hammy aristocratic buddy Melrose Plant to help with the case -- reads too much like "My Three Dinners with Andre." Unless, of course, you have a unnatural obsession with the tenth dimension or the experiment of Schrodinger's cat.

"The Memory Book" (Carroll and Graf, $25, 248 pages), Canadian writer Howard Engel's 11th novel about private detective Benny Cooperman, is one of those unusual cases where the author's personal story is more captivating than his fiction. Engel, in the past an imaginative yarnspinner but a middling stylist, suffered a small stroke in 2001 that left him with a rare condition known as alexia sine agraphia, which means he could still write but not read.

Lemons to lemonade time: Engle has his likable hero suffer the same malady in the novel through a blow to the head while working a case, and plays out the investigation as the gumshoe recovers and begins to learn about his new handicap. This part of the story, plus a fascinating afterword by popular medical explainer Oliver Sacks ("Awakenings"), simply takes over the pedestrian crime, a woman's murder and its aftermath, that is supposedly the novel's centerpiece.

Likewise, Robert Goddard's mostly beguiling psychological thriller "Borrowed Times" (Bantam, $12, (397 pages) is flawed by a squirrelly first-person narrator who is decidedly less compelling than his story. The novel examines the man's triple obsession: with a young woman raped and murdered on the night he met her, with her disintegrating family and with an apparent miscarriage of justice that sets up a classy surprise ending.

Finally, only a writer of Robert Ferrigno's talents ("The Horse Latitudes") could make more than a laugher out of "Prayers for the Assassin" (Scribner, $24.95, 397 pages). This what-if? tale set in 2040 has "the terrorists" take over the U.S. after simultaneous suitcase nuclear attacks in New York, Washington and Mecca, leaving the country divided into an "Islamic Republic" with its capital in Seattle and "The Christian Bible Belt" in the South. Think Jihad Cola and afternoon prayers at Super Bowl halftime.

Only Rakkim Epps, an ex-Fedayeen warrior now agnostic loner, can save the day by uncovering who's really behind the triple attacks. "Prayers" is patently preposterous paranoia run amok -- and curiously addicting mind candy. Hollywood, get me Nicolas Cage!

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