An intriguing idea that is over before it even gets started or even gets at what kind of book it's trying to be. The catacombs of the title is the home of an ancient race of advanced beings evolved from lions. Once the masters of Earth, the "Zan" were driven into suspended animation by some unknown calamity. Now their resting place inside the hollow of a mountain in a contemporary African republic has been located, along with a number of fiery diamonds on which the Zan printed the secrets of their civilization. The once heroic revolutionary who now rules the African republic offers the stones to the first super-power willing to trade nuclear weapons for them. (The Zan, we learn, developed a shield to protect Earth from a meteor barrage, though the superpowers believe the shield would work as well against incoming ICBM's) The Americans and the Soviets, too eager to bargain, dispatch their own agents to the distant catacombs where the archeological team assigned slowly realizes that the catacombs aren't quite dormant.
This was a promising idea for a story - parts technothriller, paranormal thriller and Indiana Jones, but it never quite works. The biggest problem is that it takes most of the book for the purported heroes to reach the catacombs - with the book being less about the mysterious catacombs than the travails of land-travel in Africa (imagine watching an episode of the X-Files in which Mulder and Scully spend most of the episode trying to get a rental car). Then there are the characters - I'm not trying to be literary here, but you don't need to be into Henry James to appreciate good character, like "Raiders" without Indiana Jones, or a generic James Bond. There are several characters who seem like they're supposed to be the heroes - a diplomat, the archeologist, an agent - but never get to the forefront or anywhere near it (of course, it doesn't help that there's no story for them to get to). The African dictator is also an interesting figure - a distinguished and respected revolutionary slowly verging into militancy and autocracy (imagine Nelson Mandela slowly morphing into Robert Mugabe). Though he's willing to trade the stones with anybody for nukes, we know he's got one target on his mind - South Africa. The story never makes clear how willing he is to unleash nukes or simply hold them over Preatoria. Of course the biggest hole in the Catacombs are the Catacombs themselves. The author describes them and their inhabitants only briefly, and hints at how advanced the Zan were (a mysterious force preserves everything within - not even milk goes bad) but then seems to ignore them completely. We get barely a glimmer of what the archeologists must have learnt by the time the book starts. What a botch.