The first book in the Pendergast series is just what it promises to be: a mystery-thriller with an intriguing sci-fi twist. Unusual, gruesome deaths are piling up at the New York Museum of Natural History, characterised by two disturbing traits: gaping chest wounds, like those inflicted by predatory animals, and missing brains — which appear to be eaten. Margo Green, a researcher at the Museum, finds herself at the center of the mystery, attempting to piece together scraps of information — hints from a disastrous mission to the Amazon, forensic clues, genetic oddities. At the museum, she works with her supervisor, Dr. Frock, and prodigy geneticist Greg Kawakita. On the law enforcement side of things, Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta is investigating the homicides, aided by the nigh-preternatural FBI Special Agent Pendergast. Pendergast, though his role is fairly small in this first book, is the focal point of this whole series of loosely-connected thrillers. Part James Bond, part Sherlock Holmes, wrapped up in the package of a Louisiana polymath. He’s a Gentleman and a Scholar who also knows several hundred ways to kill you. Margo’s also friends with Bill Smithback, a journalist who’s been hired by the Museum to write a book about the venerable institution — and who’s been chafing at the censorship imposed by the Museum’s head of public relations.
So. These are our protagonists. The first murders in the Museum seem a tragedy. But as the bodies start mounting, the situation becomes ever more dire –yet the Museum is determined to go forward with the opening night of a new exhibit, called Superstition. As it happens, one of the key pieces of this exhibit is a figurine of Mbwun, an Amazonian monstrosity who appears to have been worshiped (or at least venerated) by a remote tribe… and the figurine depicts a creature with traits that fit the profile of the murderer/murder weapons. And so rumours start to build of a Museum Beast, lurking in the bowels of the Museum… While D’Agosta and Pendergast are convinced by the scientists as to the increasing viability of this hypothesis, the Museum heads and the head of the New York FBI office aren’t buying it, and insist on going forward with the opening… setting the stage for a whole lot of trouble.
P&C have a talent for description, both atmospheric and characteristic. Though I have no doubt readers with a more intimate familiarity with the Museum of Natural History would get even greater enjoyment out of this book, they draw vivid enough pictures for those of us, like myself, who’ve only made brief passes through years earlier, or those who’ve never set foot in that museum at all. From the vast open hallways to the claustrophobic below-ground research labs, the sense of place is incredibly strong, as is the sense of mood — vitally important to a thriller. When the Beast pursues Margo, I could clearly visualise her dim, shadowy surroundings, I could feel Margo’s barely-controlled panic, I could hear the snuffling of the beast. P&C handle both stillness and chaos deftly.
The sense of character is also great. P&C have an ability which I often associate with Law and Order episodes — to evoke a very specific personality, with a distinct background, in a very short amount of time. Of course, by mid-book, you start strongly suspecting that anyone new introduced is probably going to be the next victim, but that’s not too much to overcome. The major characters all have complex backgrounds — which often aren’t even fully explored in this book (Pendergast’s less than anyone’s) — and while they certainly all have their flaws, it’s that psychological veracity that makes them so compelling. Many of these characters weave through P&C’s other novels, both within and outside of the Pendergast series, which makes returning to them, either in re-reads or when each new book comes out, rather like returning to old friends. These books often get compared to Michael Crichton’s work, and I think the strong characters are what actually make them better. They do the science, the thrills, and the mystery all very well, too, but the magnetic personalities are what bring me back to these books time and again.
Overall, this book is a fun, quick read and the start to a great series. It’s certainly not high literature — and it doesn’t need to be. But it is incredibly high-quality brain candy. I thoroughly recommend Relic, the rest of the Pendergast series, and all of P&C’s work, both as a pair and individually (and I’ll be reading and reviewing the rest over the coming months). Read them on the beach, on planes, at the park — read them when you’ve been working too hard and need to give your brain a treat. They’re a wonderful respite, and the most entertaining thrillers I’ve ever read.