The Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the more sophisticated and subtle of the Pendergast thrillers. Despite the sci-fi element being more genuinely plausibility-straining and utterly critical to the story, you don’t feel it for most of the book. The sci-fi twist isn’t the point, and it doesn’t set the mood. This feels more like an old-time Victorian mystery — not least because the book takes a couple of speculative dips back in time.
In The Cabinet of Curiosities, construction for a new building unearths a gruesome charnal house, over a hundred years old. The skeletons are testament to America’s most prolific serial killer — whose crimes had never before been revealed or even suspected. This alone would be a fairly compelling story, but what really gets the attention of our usual assembly of heroes is when “copycat” crimes start popping up in New York City — men and women attacked and brutalized, part of their spinal cord removed, while they’re still alive. Though the NYPD considers these copycats to be inspired by the news about the archaeological site (and blames reporter Bill Smithback for breaking the story), Pendergast insists that the connection is far more direct and important than that.
The female lead and primary research in this book is Nora Kelly, girlfriend of Bill Smithback. (They meet in a spinoff novel, Thunderhead, which I was going to read ahead of this book before I realised I don’t actually own it). She serves more or less the same function as Margo Green, but she’s a character with a bit more bite to her. She and Pendergast are thwarted consistently: by Nora’s boss at the Museum, who doesn’t want her involved, by Anthony Fairhaven, the developer who owns the land on which the 130-year-old bodies were found, and by the New York Mayor’s office, who don’t want them upsetting Fairhaven, a significant political contributor. Nonetheless, Pendergast enlists the aid and wins the loyalty of policeman Patrick Murphy O’Shaughnessy — originally assigned as a liaison to try and slow Pendergast down, but who quickly joins in the hunt, feeling reinvigorated in his career by the detective work. And of course, Bill’s running around, picking up pieces of information, helping Pendergast in unexpected ways, and generally pissing off every authority figure he encounters. (I have, if it hasn’t become apparent yet, quite a soft spot for Bill Smithback).
Though the whole series has been retroactively dubbed the Pendergast series, and though Pendergast certainly played a critical role in Relic and Reliquary, this is the first book where it really does become his series. Not that that means we suddenly know everything about him. Even when you’re in his head, seeing things from his perspective, even joining him on some of his decidedly unusual meditations, Pendergast remains a cypher in so many ways — which is, of course, so much of what makes him so utterly fascinating as a character. We do get more tantalizing hints here, about his past, about his family, with its streak of madness, and about his unique methods, blending Eastern mysticism with modern forensics.
This is also the first book of the series where P&C kill off a character you really care about. I remember being thoroughly shocked when it happened, and when it became apparent that, yes, they really had killed him, this was not a fake-out (because P&C are also masters of misdirection). They dig in the knife and twist. It’s a habit they keep up in further books. (Someday, someone should do a body count of all their books, with a separate list of near-death-experiences).
This is a great thriller, a really chilly one, which easily blends modern science with metaphysical speculation. The healthy dose of Victoriana adds a delightfully macabre frisson to the story, a thread of the detective stories of previous generations. And, as always, P&C are great with character — they can sketch someone out in vivid detail in just a few pages, but they can also craft characters who are so deep, so complex, who can seem so real or nigh-supernatural. For all of these reasons, The Cabinet of Curiosities is among my favorite P&C novels, and I recommend it to all lovers of the mystery-thriller genre.