Title: Brimstone (Pendergast #5)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 752 pages
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars
There is a lot going on in this book. Brimstone throws out more side plots and red herrings than the other P&C novels tend to, which makes for an exciting read, but which also gives the book a bit of an uneven pace.
Brimstone opens with our old friend Vincent D’Agosta, who we learn is now with the Southhampton PD, after leaving the NYPD to try to make it as a mystery writer. When that doesn’t pan out, he can’t make it back into the NYPD thanks to a hiring freeze, so he has to take a less vigorous duty in a beach town. A bizarre murder brings him back into contact with everyone’s favourite FBI agent, Aloysius Pendergast. The victim has been burned alive, but with no trace of accelerant — or, indeed, of any fire whatsoever. The only hints are the smell of brimstone in the air and a hoof-shaped mark scorched into the floor.
Two more murders happen in New York, with similar — though not precisely identical — trappings. The psuedo-religious nature of the crimes gets attention (thanks to hack reporter Bryce Harriman, nemesis of Bill Smithback, who doesn’t appear in this novel thanks to being on his honeymoon), and eventually, a crowd of hippies, anarchists, Satanists, pagans, and fundamentalists start gathering in Central Park, near the scene of one of the crimes. Their unofficial leader is a lost soul with a Messiah complex, and when his following gets a little too large and rowdy, it’s up to another old friend, Captain Laura Hayward, to try and sort things out. Unfortunately, not everyone’s willing to give her way of doing things a chance, and the situation rapidly spirals out of control. And then, on top of all of that, we get the first hints about Pendergast’s alarmingly adroit brother, Diogenes — a psychopath who faked his death, but is resurfacing in order to commit the ultimate crime, and taunting Aloysius along the way.
Pendergast and Aloysius find themselves at a loss as to connecting the dots between the crimes. When they finally do piece some bits together, the lead takes them across the ocean, to Florence, Italy, where thirty years ago, a group of young men attempted to summon the devil and make a pact with him in exchange for fortune and glory. Pendergast and D’Agosta take several twists and turns in Italy, and the story there is quite gripping (even if the villain’s ultimate motive seems a little odd and improbable). Unfortunately, as soon as Pendergast and D’Agosta depart for Italy, the plot back in New York sort of gets the short end of the stick. Which is a shame, because there was good material there, but it’s definitely a side plot at that point, no longer tied to the main stream of events. Everytime they return to New York City, it feels like getting jerked out of one book and dropped down into another. It sort of feels like P&C started this thread and then weren’t quite sure what to do with it. Preston handles the concept of religious fervor boiling over into violence a lot better in his solo book Blasphemy.
Overall, I really enjoy this book, and it’s definitely a good setup for Dance of Death and The Book of the Dead. I knock a little off the score for the jumble of plotlines and the flagging nature of the Central Park events. It does meander a bit, but there’s a whole lot of juicy material, and I like that they took more chances with the red herrings than in previous books. The endgame is heart-thumpingly good. You see the full force of the villain’s diabolical machinations, Pendergast suffers a miscalculation that keeps him out of “too-perfect” territory (which, admittedly, he can veer near sometimes), and you see some wonderful if slightly shocking growth in D’Agosta’s character. And then, the cliffhanger finale segues directly into the next book, Dance of Death.