In a beautiful garden in a Russian city, a graduate student in history watches as the man she is working for is shot to death in broad daylight — and fears she might be the next target.
At a monastery perched atop towering rocks in central Greece, villagers find the bodies of seven murdered monks at the base of the rocks. Their heads are missing.
The student makes a desperate call for help to two former Special Forces soldiers she's never met. An Interpol agent nudges his way into the investigation at the Greek monastery — and incredulously watches a video that indicates the killers are soldiers of ancient Sparta.
And a long-lost document connected to historical archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer (maybe) of the buried city of Troy, is another part of the puzzle of The Lost Throne.
Hidden treasures, religious secrets, exotic locales, intrepid heroes — yes, it sounds like the Dan Brown school of thriller writing. But Chris Kuzneski has been writing historical thrillers since before The Da Vinci Code took over the bestseller charts, and his new novel shows that he knows what he's doing.
The Lost Throne is the fourth book by Kuzneski, who lives in the Tampa Bay area. In it, he brings back his series characters Jon Payne and David Jones, as well as Nick Dial, a character from his second novel, Sign of the Cross.
Payne and Jones are both former members of a Special Forces squad called the MANIACs — a background that prepares them in many ways for treasure hunting (of the ethical kind, of course). Dial is a top cop: He runs the homicide division of Interpol, the international crime-fighting organization.
Payne, Jones and Dial fit the thriller hero mold, but they differ from Brown's series protagonist in a significant way. It would no doubt be a sign of the Apocalypse if Robert Langdon ever cracked a joke; Kuzneski's alpha dogs are all wise guys, quick with the banter and goofy jokes.
One hallmark of the historical thriller is a good bit of travelogue, and The Lost Throne doesn't disappoint. Kuzneski takes us on descriptive tours through Russia's St. Petersburg and several locations in Greece, and he kicks off the novel in our own St. Petersburg, where Payne and Jones are chilling at the Renaissance Vinoy while consulting at MacDill Air Force Base.
Payne is so chilled he doesn't answer his cell phone until 17 missed calls, three voice mails and a text message stack up — most of them from a restricted number. He and Jones figure out the caller was a man they've never met, Richard Byrd, a treasure hunter who found them through a mutual friend.
Byrd was calling for help, but it's too late, as they find when they talk to his assistant, Allison Taylor. She is holed up in a hotel room in the Russian St. Petersburg, and she's not chilling. So that's where the duo goes.
Kuzneski alternates chapters about Payne's and Jones' efforts to help Allison with Dial's pursuit of those Spartan soldiers. The tale leaps from a mysterious transcript of the archaeologist Schliemann's supposed dying words to a hidden history of classical Greece that depicts the Spartans as "dim-witted barbarians," not heroes. Blood is shed, secrets revealed, conspiracies checked, and a fine time is had by all.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.