Thrillers tend to be plot heavy and character thin. Usually, however, the primary protagonist is more complex by necessity since he must drive the plot like a race driver behind a Peugot.
Gabriel Farago’s history based thriller, The Empress Holds the Key, is unusual in that instead of a single protagonist, he gives us at least half a dozen main characters. As a result, each character of necessity is secondary to the underlying story, which is not always a blessing.
In several instances Farago’s plot moves past a character so fast loose ends are left behind. Jack Rogan, an investigative reporter, seems to be the primary protagonist early on along with Jana, a woman he dated in the past and who comes back in his life with a case that interests both. Someone is out to hurt Jack for a reason he either doesn’t know or refuses to share with Jana. His car is scratched and side-swipped, and when that doesn’t scare him off, he’s beaten up so badly he’s hospitalized. Then two inexplicable things happen: Jack submits an investigative piece from his hospital bed despite suffering from a concussion and broken bones and Farago never explains who did it or why.
With Jack out of the way (for the moment), we think Jana is the novel’s protagonist, but her turn passes to an attorney who is an amateur Egyptologist, who then shares the stage with a violinist composer who is a Holocaust survivor. Additional point-of-view characters include a Egyptian police detective and several of the antagonists.
In addition to Nazis, Holocaust victims, Vatican officials, Islamic terrorists, and Knights of the Templar, there are plenty of minor characters who come and go––sometimes quite violently.
As for the plot, which begins with the discovery of artifacts that link a prominent Australian banker to Nazi Germany, the story’s complexity often gets in the way of logic.
What makes the story even more complex is that we’re several hundred pages in before we discover that the story revolves around a search for the tablets on which Moses wrote the ten commandments.
Needless to say, Farago strains logic from time to time in order to make it all hang from the same hook. The most extreme example is the violinist/composer’s origins and connection to the underlying mystery. It seems he’s not really Jewish after all since his father was a Catholic priest who sent his son to be raised by a Jewish family with a secret that he didn’t know he was carrying.
Here’s how the author explained the connection to me in a private email: “The Abbé Berenger Diderot is a central character. He is a French priest who discovered the famous Templar archives hidden in his church in the 1890’s. . . Diderot had an affair with a famous French opera singer, Francine Bijoux, and they had a son – also called Berenger after his father. The boy was put up for adoption and ended up with a Russian Jewish couple, the Krakowskis. . . Berenger Krakowski is the father of another one of the central characters, Benjamin Krakowski, the famous violin virtuoso and composer, who escaped from the German concentration camp with his brother.”
After you’ve memorized the above, you still may get hung up on Farago’s method of disposing of characters. Jewish characters in particular are vulnerable to quick demise. There’s the Holocaust survivor who falls asleep while Jack and Jana interview her, the Jewish husband of the Nazi’s daughter who disappeared, and the Jewish clock repairman who is executed by the Austrian police for reasons it’s hard to fathom.
Now for the good news. Farago has put a lot of research into this story in order to create an aura of plausibility; he also writes well. I didn’t encounter any typos or grammatical errors. So, if you aren’t bothered by twists that occasionally miss their turn, you probably enjoy the ride. Thrillers after all are supposed to take you to another reality. To that extent, Farago succeeds.