Malone answers a note from a friend in the intelligence community and finds himself in the middle of an assassination attempt on the president. He foils it but is thought to be involved, so he has to run from the Secret Service. His girfriend, the beautiful and deadly Cassiopeia Vitt, helps him out but also finds herself on the run from the law. Eventually they meet with the president and learn that they're in the middle of a conspiracy with roots that stretch back to the War of Independence. The shadowy Commonwealth, a group of men whose ancestors were privateers and pirates who fought for the United States during the Revolution, are being pressured by the government and they have decided to strike back. We learn they've done this before -- every presidential assassination has happened when the Commonwealth felt threatened. Malone must track down the centuries-old documents that give the Commonwealth their power, but since they have allies in some of the U.S. intelligence services it will not be easy.
Initially The Jefferson Key might seem like a good move for Berry -- rather than some of the historical flights of fancy he's thrown at Malone based on Biblical or medieval texts, here he deals with some fairly straightforward material. The "Key" of the title is an actual cipher device invented by Thomas Jefferson and displayed at Jefferson's home of Monticello, and the code Malone must solve has its roots in an actual code Jefferson invented. But the book is shot full of plot holes and its overall sloppiness send this to near the bottom of the Berry pile. Supposedly brilliant and savvy field operatives do things like neglect to double-check escape routes to see if they've been discovered by enemies or turn on flashlights while wearing night-vision goggles. There are too many similar characters messing around in parallel strands of action to easily keep straight. OK, here's Knox -- wait, is Knox the Commonwealth's quartermaster or enforcer, or was that Hale? No, Hale is one of the Commonwealth's four captains. Now we follow disgraced former agent Wyatt as he battles Knox and a person from one of the intelligence agencies -- I think it's Wyatt, anyway, or is that Knox again?
The other major problem is plausibility. Malone's quest for the documents is urgent because if the Commonwealth finds them, then the "letters of marque" that allow them to act completely on their own against the enemies of the U.S. will be verified and they will be legally untouchable. Yes, the United States government will be powerless against four private citizens because they hold two-hundred-year old agreements with that same government. The sound you hear is every American Indian who's ever lived, laughing.
Berry also uses brief, staccato-like passages when the action heats up, sometimes changing scenes after only four or five lines. The intended effect may be something like a jump-cut in a movie but it feels much more like the shaky-cam that's made Dramamine one of the nation's moviehouses' best sellers. Each passage ends with some cliffhanger-like pause, but the intensity ebbs because so many of those pauses are well-worn cliches -- up to and including that lurching zombie of shots "ringing out."
Whatever skills Berry has brought to earlier books -- narrative flair and a knack for action scenes -- may or may not be here in The Jefferson Key. Its stylistic and storytelling flaws have covered them up well, but we can always hope they haven't erased them entirely.
Val fled sunny Florida when he saw his best friend beaten to death on the orders of drug runner Junior. Now safely living in Los Angeles, he's put his plan into motion to lure Junior out to California so he can have his revenge. But then he meets the beautiful marine biologist Kyle Abbott and wonders if he can still take care of his business with Junior without getting her hurt. That won't be his only problem, though, because Kyle's wealthy family has its own share of issues and one of them is her stepbrother Kilo's involvement with the beautiful but psychotic conwoman Jackie and her partner, the ugly but nearly as demented Gulf War veteran Dekker.
Some aspects of a good crime noir novel are clockwork, and the skillful Ferrigno knows what to wind up and let go, as well as where to both weave his own touch into that rhythm and how to interrupt it with unexpected twists in the story. His dialogue is witty and profane, and he does an excellent job of painting Val as the tarnished hero who's seen too much to have faith in right and wrong but who somehow can't seem to quit doing so, no matter what it might wind up costing him.
Ferrigno doesn't write with the terse economy of Robert Parker or the lighter touch of Robert Crais but his works are well worth the read, and mistaking him for one of the other crime-'ritin' Roberts will turn out to be no mistake at all.