If anyone ever asked me to play “one of these things is not like the other” with the Pendergast series, this would be the book I would choose. (Well, perhaps this and also Wheel of Darkness, which we’ll get to later). It has a very different feel to it than the other books do, thanks in large part to its very different setting, and also, ultimately, to its very different criminal.
Still Life with Crows finds Agent Pendergast in Medicine Creek, Kansas — of all places. Medicine Creek is a dying town, suffering from lack of jobs, lack of tourism, lack of, well, anything. Its one hope hinges on some experiment cornfields that Kansas State University might plant in the town’s territory — unless they choose neighboring town Deeper. The situation infuses the characters native to Medicine Creek with a certain desperation in a very different way than the characters in the New York books typically have.
With the review for the KSU cornfields underway, it’s pretty much the worst time ever for a serial killer to crop up. Admittedly, there’s never a good time for that, but you take my meaning. It’s attracting attention of the wrong sort, particularly because the nature of the gruesome killings suggests a correlation to the vengeful ghosts of local Native Americans. One victim is found naked in a cornfield, surrounded by the arrow-impaled bodies of crows. Another is boiled alive, buttered and sugared. Another is cut open and has creepy-crawlies sewn up inside of him. The killings are clearly deranged, but Pendergast struggles with getting a profile on the killer, because he seems to be neither the “organised” nor the “disorganised” variety of serial killer. There’s no recognisable pattern to his murders, yet the ritual nature of several of them suggests some kind of underlying order, at least in the killer’s mind. Thus is Pendergast’s challenge: to figure out the inscrutable mystery behind these strange murders. His job isn’t made easier by the local PD, who, resentful of his intrusion into the town’s matters, decides that the killer must be from Deeper, trying to scare the KSU rep into not choosing Medicine Creek. He barrels on with this idea despite a lack of evidence, threatening Pendergast if he keeps getting involved, and generally causes a lot of trouble.
I honestly find a lot of this book forgettable. On re-reading it, I had trouble remembering the sequence of events and the endgame. I had a vague awareness of how everything was interrelated, but the finer details escaped me. Overall, this book has less to do with the overall Pendergast series than any of the others, and there’s never really any good explanation for why Pendergast even ended up there in the first place. I do thank this book, though, for giving us Corrie Swanson. Corrie is a disaffected teenager with Goth affectations, desperate to get out of Medicine Creek and away from her alcoholic mother forever. She ends up Pendergast’s assistant, and he demonstrates a faith in her intelligence and abilities that no one’s ever really shown her before — and with that, and her salary for helping him with the investigation, he also gives her hope for a way out.
Overall, this isn’t one of the better Pendergast novels, in my opinion. It’s the odd duck out, the plot meanders a bit too much, and it’s not quite as gripping a premise as some of the others. It’s worth a read if you’re in it for the whole series, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it in isolation.