Title: Dance of Death
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 592 pages
Genre: suspense thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoilers: for Brimstone‘s ending
Dance of Death picks up not too long after Brimstone leaves off, with Aloysius Pendergast presumed dead and Vincent D’Agosta left to assume a troubling legacy: the charge of stopping Aloysius’s brother, Diogenes, from committing the perfect crime. He has the assistance of Pendergast’s ward, a major player in this book for the first time, though her history stretches back to Cabinet of Curiosities. Constance Ward is an improbable creature, her life unnaturally prolonged since the late 19th-century by the mad scientist schemes of Pendergast ancestor Enoch Leng. A century of secluded life has left Constance old-fashioned and socially inept, but has given her time to hone a brilliant mind, making her an ideal research assistant. Such is the state of events when the book begins.
And then people start dropping dead. A professor at Tulane. An artist in New York. An FBI agent . At first, there’s little to connect them, but eventually — and then Aloysius turns back up, not at all dead. As was implied in the epilogue to Brimstone, Diogenes freed Aloysius from Count Fosco’s entombment and nursed him back to health; his triumph wouldn’t be complete without his hated older brother there to witness it. Aloysius soon figures out that not only is Diogenes killing people from his past, but he’s murdering them in ways that emulate the gruesome deaths of Pendergast ancestors — and aiming to frame Aloysius for the murders.
This mayhem is set against the backdrop of events back at the Museum of Natural History, yet again. Nora and Margo are back. Nora’s working on a Sacred Images exhibit; Margo is editing the magazine’s journal. They clash a bit over an interesting repatriation issue regarding some Native American artifacts, but decide that their professional disagreements on such matters shouldn’t be a bar to friendship. Unfortunately, Margo’s desire to make sure that the Sacred Images exhibit is at least presented respectfully leads her into the exhibit alone at night, where Diogenes attacks her. P&C pull off a masterful move here, and I won’t spoil it for anyone, but it’s a good one. Margo’s death enhances the feeling that no one is safe, and it alarms Pendergast, who realises that Diogenes is speeding up his timetable.
The book’s endgame is magnificent, involving chases, a jewel heist, a kidnapping, and Aloysius’s total entanglement in the web that Diogenes spun. It definitely sets up The Book of the Dead, and so it’s not quite a stand-alone novel in that regard, because I don’t know how you could read this one and not want to know what happens next. Dance of Death is one of the more compelling Pendergast novels, and it’s also the first to feature almost no sci-fi or supernatural element. The tension here comes entirely from the characters, from their personal histories and harrowing situations. Pendergast’s vulnerabilities begin to show, which is strangely nice to see, and Vincent D’Agosta ends up having to balance his personal life and professional responsibilities against his loyalty to and respect for Aloysius. The plot is tightly and intricately woven, and manages to keep up a clipping pace of action while still introducing us to new facets of familiar characters — making it a success, in my judgment.