"The Secret Scroll," Ronald Cutler

Pros: Interesting premise; fascinating setting
Cons: Over-the-top melodrama; irritating good guys; unbelievably stupid one-dimensional bad guys; all-too-convenient plot developments; heavy-handed
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Lisa Roe.

Visit The Secret Scroll online.


I prefer to relate the premise of the novels I read in my own words, but I’m really dragging my feet this time, so in the interest of finishing this review I’m going to relate the premise provided on the book’s website:

Josh Cohan, an American archaeologist, has a recurring dream about a great secret. In the wake of professional disappointment, he follows his instincts to the Judean desert where he makes a fantastic discovery: an ancient scroll containing a diary, which seems to have been written by Jesus. The Israeli Antiquities Authority sets out to authenticate the scroll, but another, more sinister organization is interested in Josh’s discovery. The Guardians, an ancient violent cult, have been waiting for a chance to unleash their evil vision on the world and will stop at nothing to get their hands on the scroll.

Josh joins the brilliant team of biblical archaeologists and translators working around the clock to find out whether the scroll is genuine. Along the way, he falls in love with Danielle, the intelligent and fiery daughter of one of the translators. When a friend turns up dead and Danielle goes missing, Josh realizes that the scroll might hold more power than he had ever imagined. Will Josh be able to discover the secret of the Guardians and protect the woman he loves without giving up the most important discovery mankind has ever made?

It’s a premise that has good potential, and the Middle Eastern setting is rich with detail. Unfortunately, other than that I just didn’t enjoy this book.

Most of the way through reading Ronald Cutler’s The Secret Scroll I stopped to read his bio on the back cover flap. Apparently he used to write radio shows, and suddenly something clicked into place for me. Much of this book probably would have worked well in that format. Unfortunately, many things that will work well in a serial radio format just aren’t right for novels. Cutler spent two years meticulously researching the background for this book, and I wish he’d spent as much time researching the differences between writing for radio and writing a novel, because this story definitely had potential.

First, many of the events in this novel feel… capricious. Convenient. When the main character, Josh, needs to figure something out, he gets a hunch, meditates, has a vision or dream, or realizes something by instinct. When the plot calls for him not to figure something out, he doesn’t. It all feels as though the author determined the sequence of reveals and events ahead of time, and then shoe-horned everything into fitting that timeline rather than letting the story unfold naturally. Events sometimes make no sense; we’re told that a place where Josh feels he needs to dig is ‘as solid as the rock—much too hard to dig’, just before Josh picks up a small spade and ‘after long minutes’ digs 10 inches down.

Josh isn’t a very likable character. I realize that part of the author’s agenda is wanting us to see him as flawed and human, but in my opinion he made him too irritating in ways that were inappropriate to what he wanted from the character (I’m trying not to give too much away here, so please forgive the roundabout-speak). For instance, the author is very heavy-handed in terms of Josh’s moral judgments of others. Josh debates and prods at others’ beliefs in ways that bely his own dislike of judgmentalism and turn him into an annoying hypocrite.

Danielle, Josh’s love interest… oh, you don’t want to get me started on this one. She spends virtually the entire book being viewed as a sex object, being used as a sex object, and using her sexuality as her ostensible only weapon (and a poor one at that). She’s supposedly an intelligent archaeologist, yet she’s entirely shut out of that side of the plot and raises only a token protest. She’s referred to repeatedly as being brilliant, resilient, remarkable, etc., yet she spends almost the entire book simpering, coming onto Josh in front of everyone, worrying about whether she’ll be raped by the bad guys, and yes, even dropping the soap in the shower in front of the bad guys. No, I’m not kidding about that last one, it really is an internet cliche brought to life. This is almost-sort of remedied a little toward the end, where she does get one brief moment to shine, but that’s about it, and it doesn’t make up for the rest.

As for the bad guys, they’re obvious, stupid beyond belief, stereotypically eeeeevil, and one-dimensionally maniacal; they act like excitable children rather than fanatical adults. We’re told repeatedly that the head bad guy, ‘The Master,’ is brilliant, but he certainly never acts that way. We’re told that the secret sect of bad guys has people in positions of power all over the world, but I can’t imagine these people attaining the least sort of temporal power. They’ve supposedly remained a secret sect for nearly 2,000 years. Yet they have a proselytizing web page, they put out pamphlet propaganda, and they carve their ‘secret’ sign into blatant ritualistic killings. A five-year-old could keep a secret better than these guys. They’d be at home in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, complete with mask-removing reveal:

“Oh my God—not you!”

And did I mention the dialogue?

“The Guardians, of course, are all celibate. Only one may make love to a woman. Fortunately, that is I.”

Or, when Josh figures out who the traitor is and wants to allay his suspicions,

“I was just admiring how clever you are,” Josh lied.

Yeah. Like that sounds even remotely sincere.

The premise and setting had a lot of potential, but unfortunately everything else is one-dimensional, predictable, heavy-handed, and stilted. This is clearly meant to be the first book in a series, and as a story it would be an interesting one to follow, but the writing itself is too painful for me to want to continue with it.

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6 comments on “"The Secret Scroll," Ronald Cutler
  1. J. Kaye says:

    “irritating good guys” I felt this way about Jance’s latest book WEB OF LIES. Besides the slightly boring parts, her main character was a good-goodie, a Ms. Do Right. I hated her! (lol)

  2. Yours is the second review of this book that I’ve read and the other reviewer didn’t care for it either. The premise does sound intriguing but it sounds like the book failed to live up to expectation.

  3. heather says:

    J. Kaye: It’s funny how characters that are just allowed to be themselves are much more interesting than those that we’re told are somehow superior. Josh was referred to repeatedly as being incredibly intellectual, and his moralizing sermons and internal monologues were clearly, well, sermons, and it was so heavy-handed that I hated it. Gah! It’s particularly important in this case because of who we’re supposed to accept Josh as being, but I hate reviews that include spoilers, so I’m trying not to go there.

    Feline: I’ll be curious to see what others think of this book and whether they had similar complaints or not. It’s funny… I don’t need a book to be literarily brilliant in order to enjoy it; I’ve enjoyed books by Preston, Rollins, etc. that were just plain fun even if they weren’t perfect (they come to mind because they’re quoted on the book’s cover as having said great things about it). But this one wasn’t even fun.

  4. Myrthe says:

    I have read only very, very negative reviews about this one, yours is probably the fourth or fifth one, Heather. The premise does sound very good, though. It’d be a book I’d pick up in a second. If it weren’t for all those reviews I’ve already read….

  5. heather says:

    Myrthe: Yeah, it sounds like the author had some good ideas. If only he’d realized how much difference there was between writing for the radio and writing a novel.

  6. John Back says:

    Just read the book. It was the worst I’ve read in years–and I don’t agree that the central plot fixture (finding a “tell all” scroll) is anything close to innovative. I agree totally with the reviewer’s assessment of character development (or lack thereof); and frustration with the never-ending series of dumb moves the protagonist makes. As to style I originally thought it must have been written for children, but slowly realized that the violence level would be too high for that to be true. Darn near unreadable. Not worth the efforet.

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