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James Douglas is the pseudonym of a well-known historical fiction writer, Douglas Jackson. I’m a big fan of his superb Roman novels and I was grateful to get hold of an advance copy of Jackson’s first thriller, The Doomsday Testament, published on the same day as the wonderful Defender of Rome (my review is here).
The Doomsday Testament follows the journey of Jamie Saintclair to discover the true identity of his much loved and gentle grandfather, Matthew, who has just died in a fall at his home. Jamie recovers lost paintings and so, when he reads hints in his grandfather’s journal about a missing Raphael painting that Matthew had seen behind enemy lines in Germany during the closing days of the Second World War, Jamie’s curiosity is caught. Jamie also discovers something else in the journal, a map on silk which contains symbols reminiscent of those used in the iconography of the SS. But what is it a map to?
Jamie follows in the wartime footsteps of his grandfather, accompanied by a journalist, Sarah, who is in need of a good story to pay the bills and recognises that Jamie may well have it. The clues in the journal and the map take the pair to SS fortresses in Germany, caves in Tibet and canyons in Switzerland. The further they go, the more they realise that Matthew was engaged in his own private war, and hell. All these years later, it continues. Jamie and Sarah are pursued wherever they go and the stakes rise as Jamie comes to realise that he is the only one who can find whatever it is that his grandfather took such great care to hide. And it has nothing to do with Raphael or paintings.
I found The Doomsday Testament to be a book of three thirds. The final two thirds were so exciting and packed full of new discoveries and developments that I had a lot of trouble putting it down. I wasn’t just interested in discovering the truth behind the mystery of what Matthew had experienced and seen during the war, I was also fascinated by the characters of Matthew and his grandson Jamie. There is obviously much more to both these men than one thinks. What intrigued me in particular is how both men are peace loving and yet they have an instinct in them that is deadly. They both learn about themselves through the pages of the book. Jamie is an interesting man. There is also a side to him – and to his grandfather – that is quite frightening.
The attention to detail during the descriptions of the locations and events, past and present, is compelling. The action sequences, and there are many, are hugely exciting. The additional characters, both good and bad, pass through the pages but they have something extra about them to make them whole. Possibly, as is common for me with thrillers, the only exception for this was the heroine, Sarah. The novel was also a little reticent to get into its stride as the thriller found its voice. However, once the action moved from London and the focus was on the unravelling story, there was no let up in the pace and I was gripped by it.
This isn’t a typical thriller, though. Our preconceptions about what a thriller should deliver are challenged, with the focus in places more on the horrors of what went on during the Second World War in the name of science. I appreciated that additional depth. The ending of a thriller can always be problematic but here it was completely satisfying. What I do demand of all thrillers is that they’re unputdownable. I only put The Doomsday Testament down the once.