Friday, December 26, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Overseer,” by Jonathan Rabb

(Editor’s note: This is the 37th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Simon Wood, a British-born engineer and Anthony Award-winning novelist, who now lives in California. The author most recently of the thriller We All Fall Down, Wood wrote several weeks ago about another unjustly forgotten book, A Clubbable Woman, by the great Reginald Hill.)

It’s not uncommon to see books that explore similar ground enjoy widely differing success. One book becomes a phenomenon, while the other flies below the reading public’s radar. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a work that succeeded, whereas Jonathan Rabb’s The Overseer didn’t quite make it.

It’s a shame really, because Rabb’s book is a first-class thriller that deserved more success. Rabb, a former academic at Columbia University, uses his political science and history background to come up with a yarn that plays with history and mythical documents. The premise behind the book is, what if there was another document like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince? But it goes way beyond anything than Sun Tzu and Machiavelli ever thought of. It’s an actual playbook for controlling the world. It exists in the guise of On Supremacy, a thesis penned by a 16th-century Swiss monk, Eisenreich. Eisenreich, all too aware the enormity of his ideas, dies before he’ll hand over the document. The document is forgotten, although theories that great historical figures throughout time might have possessed it--Henry VIII and Adolf Hitler among them--lend weight to the belief that it exists.

Fast-forward now to the present, and the mystical document is in the hands of a conservative cabal consisting of a TV pundit, a financier, and a radical educator. They have a version of On Supremacy and they’re putting its theories of world domination into practice. The plan would have gone unnoticed by the security agencies if it hadn’t been for the murder of a teenage girl in Montana. Her dying word--“Eisenreich”--means nothing to anyone in the U.S. State Department, but it does to Xander Jaspers, a brilliant young academic who has an understanding of Eisenreich’s theories. He’s teamed up with a deep-cover agent, Sarah Trent, to track down On Supremacy and thwart any plans to topple the democratic world.

What is so cool about The Overseer is that it’s that perfect mix of reality and fantasy. We know some well-financed cults exist. We know abuses of powers happen more regularly than they should. And we are hooked by the idea that there is a Holy Grail-type document that could destabilize the world. This is Santa Claus stuff for adults. How fun is that?

At its heart, The Overseer is a romp. It’s not a classic for the ages, but it’s a wonderful piece of “what if” storytelling. It has a great concept filled with familiar characters. Sarah Trent is a weary and damaged agent looking for redemption, Xander Jaspers is an innocent who needs breaking out of his bookish world to put the death of a young wife behind him, and Rabb’s bad guys are people we can identify with in the real world. There’s no ambiguity here. We know who to root for so we can enjoy the thrill ride.

But what makes this a more poignant novel than it was when it was first published in 1999 are the news events that have happened since then. Almost a decade ago, The Overseer came off as a real flight of fancy. Who would have believed that a major terrorist attack could occur in Washington, D.C., a financial collapse could be triggered by over-inflation of the markets, and a commodities shortage could lead to spiraling costs? But these are the truths of a post -9/11 world. It makes you believe in conspiracies and wonder if such a thing as Eisenreich’s On Supremacy exists ... and who is in possession of it.

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