The Lost Order
The Lost Order is an engrossing, gripping contemporary mystery about the confederate Knights of the Golden Cross from the time of the U.S. Civil War and about the vast horde of gold and silver they amassed and hid. It is also about the intriguing past and devious machinations of the Smithsonian Institution, Museums, and Libraries. I’m very fond of historical mysteries that are more fact than fiction, and when such a book is so skillfully wrought that you don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins, it makes for a particularly noteworthy read. (You don’t want to miss the interesting Author’s Note at the end, which reveals how much of the story is historically true.)
Cotton Malone is an ex-fighter pilot and an ex-agent of the Magellan Billet, the secretive organisation of the Justice Department. These days, he’s enjoying his retirement at his bookshop in Copenhagen. However, at the start of the book, Cotton has been enticed back Stateside at the request of the Chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution, who’s also the chief justice of the United States. He has been tasked with finding a hidden cache of part of the billion dollar treasure of the Knights of the Golden Cross. Since 1865, treasure hunters have been seeking this immense wealth, but other than rumors and mysterious deaths, nary a whisper of the buried riches has surfaced.
Cotton heads into the depths of the Ouachita Forest in Western Arkansas, equipped with a magnetometer, a GPS tracker, starting coordinates given to him by Martin Thomas, the reference librarian of the National Museum of American History, and some notes from the 1909 treasure-hunting expedition launched by the Smithsonian. Despite the history of death and terror associated with the search, Cotton finds himself intrigued. He’s been given a generous finder’s fee, but he would’ve done it for free for the thrill of the danger and mystery that cling to it.
Unfortunately, danger finds Cotton just as he is deciphering the cryptic signs hidden in plain sight on the trees and rocks in the forest. When he wakes up with a horribly aching head, he finds himself trapped in a hot silo. Fortunately for him, his girlfriend, Cassiopeia, is on hand to effect a rescue, but as they escape into the forest, they’re pursued by rifle shots and whizzing bullets. I really enjoyed Cotton’s and Cassiopeia’s levity and laissez-faire attitude as they escape pursuit. They’re old hat at this, and keep their heads, despite the dire nature of their situation.
In the meantime, former President Danny Daniels is attending the funeral of Alex Sherwood, a senior senator from Tennessee who was his closest friend. His grief allows him to transcend his distaste at meeting Alex’s grasping widow, Diane, and soon afterwards, he elects to avoid all the senior politicians thronging the funeral and slips away in order to visit his daughter’s grave. Throughout his career, Danny has had to project an image of poker-faced toughness, but where his daughter is concerned, the pain is as fresh as it has ever been, a deeply seated hurt combined with his guilt at the fact that he is responsible for her death, that he had not been able to save her from the fire that killed her.
Just as he’s skirting the boundaries of the cemetery, he’s approached by a middle-aged woman who says she was a close friend of Alex’s. Danny is staggered by her declaration that his friend was murdered as much as by the information that she and Alex had maintained a six-year-long secret friendship that no one knew about. She says that Alex was greatly troubled by a notebook he was reading in the weeks before his death that had been given to him by his brother-in-law. Her remarks resurrect the disquiet that Danny has been feeling about Alex having fallen to his death off a cliff he’d often walked, so decides to confront Diane about Alex’s death, and the conversation further adds to his unease that it was not accidental. This is compounded when he discovers a note book belonging to Alex’s brother-in-law in a bag of books in Diane’s study.
Stamped on the notebook is the sign of a cross in a circle, the emblem of the Knights of the Golden Cross. How is the political takeover of the Senate by the House, as outlined in the notebook, related to the Knights? Danny might no longer be at the centre of world events, but the prospect of being able to do something for his friend – to bring his murderer to justice – and to get to the bottom of the fantastical political shenanigans outlined in the notebook – gives him a renewed sense of purpose.
I came to admire both Cotton and Danny during the course of this book. Both are upstanding people with bone-deep integrity and the desire to be just and to do good. While Cotton starts out being motivated by the treasure, Danny is motivated by his friend’s death. Both spiral ever closer to the mystery surrounding the Knights of the Golden Cross. Working within the bounds of their experience and leaning on friends for help, they’re both extremely capable of navigating the treacherous shoals of the mystery.
Who would’ve thought that the Smithsonian was involved in skulduggery through the decades since its inception? They’ve always maintained secret archives that have been available only to a chosen few subject to influence and bribery. Much of this is fact, but the fictional elements elevate the what-ifs to fantastic levels. I was also totally fascinated by the politics and political machinations in the story. I learned so much about how Congress works and who sucks up to whom and who manipulates whom. Ideals do drive passion, but money and power talk louder.
If you’re a fan of the fascinating Cotton Malone series of books, The Lost Order is not to be missed, although it does work well as a standalone, too. This was my first Steve Berry book, and it is most certainly not going to be my last. I am looking forward to diving into The Templar Legacy next. Those fascinating knights and their shenanigans sure cause my blood to rush with excitement.