The Patriot Threat, Steve Berry’s tenth Cotton Malone thriller, opens with a tense 1936 encounter in the White House. President Franklin Roosevelt and former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon—two proud and powerful men who loathed each other—are discussing the terms of a substantial contribution Mellon is making to the United States government: a priceless art collection, an endowment, and a building fund for a new National Gallery of Art.
But Mellon also gives Roosevelt a “separate, more private gift”—a single sheet of paper that Roosevelt calls gibberish. Mellon claims it reveals two devastating government secrets. When Roosevelt balls it up and throws it in the trash, Mellon calmly admonishes him and soon departs, but not before taking a final, cryptic potshot at the president: “A man always has two reasons for the things he does,” he says: “a good one and a real one.” The country needs a National Gallery, according to Mellon—“That was my good reason for doing what I have done. The real reason is that, unlike you, I am a patriot.”
The novel picks up in the present-day Mediterranean with Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone at the tail end of a cruise on what has so far been an undemanding freelance assignment. Magellan Billet, the intelligence arm of the Justice Department and Malone’s former employer, has tasked Malone and Luke Daniels, a current Magellan Billet agent, with keeping a close eye on a former Treasury official: Paul Larks is thought to be meeting an American fugitive named Anan Wayne Howell in order to share purloined documents.
In Venice, however, Malone receives an auxiliary assignment: to observe the handoff of twenty million dollars in insurance-fraud money to representatives of the North Korean dictator known as Dear Leader. When the operation goes spectacularly awry, Malone begins to suspect that this assignment represents only a fraction of a much bigger and more dangerous picture. “How did that money transfer just happen to occur while he was already in Venice? The answer to that question had not become overly important until the shooting started. Now the cash was ashes and all of the participants to the payoff dead. So he’d like to know.”
Meanwhile, Anan Wayne Howell was convicted of tax evasion but fled the country before his sentencing; since then he has written a book which outlines his theory that the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was never properly ratified and that the federal income tax is therefore illegal. Is proof of his theory contained in Paul Larks’s black satchel? When Larks is found dead in his state room, a deadly chain of events begins to unfold, one that appears closely tied to Andrew Mellon’s historical riddle.
Berry is a master of the mini-cliffhanger, and his blend of historical suspense and international intrigue will appeal to fans of Dan Brown, Joel Rosenberg, and Brad Meltzer. Written in short narrative sections that zing back and forth across continents and among multiple points of view, The Patriot Threat is a classic edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Kathryn Justice Leache is a freelance writer who lives with her family in her hometown of Memphis. Her life among books has included work as a librarian and stints as a bookseller at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and The Booksellers at Laurelwood in Memphis.