The Book of the Dead, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: The Book of the Dead (Pendergast #7)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 597 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Dance with Death

This is probably my favourite Pendergast novel. Perhaps coincidentally, it’s also the first Pendergast novel I read.

Like Brimstone, this book has a lot going on, a lot of different threads that weave in and out of each other. To begin with, Aloysius Pendergast is in a maximum security prison, awaiting trial for several murders and for the theft of the jewel collection of the Museum of Natural History — all crimes perpetrated by his brother, Diogenes, during the last book. Diogenes’s frame job was masterful, near-perfect — but there are just enough holes to be holding up the trial, and Laura Heyward finds herself investigating them despite herself. Vincent D’Agosta is taking a much more active role in clearing Pendergast’s name, risking his own career and his relationship with Laura in order to break Aloysius out of prison. He’s working with Eli Glinn, a forensic psychologist introduced to the Pendergast series in Dance with Death to analyse Diogenes, and who apparently appears first in Ice Limit, another P&C novel that I haven’t read.

Meanwhile, Diogenes is taking advantage of Aloysius’s incarceration to set his real ultimate crime into motion. His planned apotheosis wasn’t stealing the Museum’s jewels, nor was it framing Aloysius for the murders. His true goal is on a much larger scale, and he uses his alter ego’s position at the Museum to set it into motion. He’s also somehow managed to find Constance Greene, sequestered in Aloysius’s Riverside mansion; he wants to win her loyalty away from Pendergast, and slowly attempts to befriend her and turn her against her guardian.

At the Museum, Nora Kelly is back, tapped to organise the Museum’s next big exhibit: an authentic Egyptian tomb, first installed in the 1930s, which closed and was walled off after a series of strange accidents happened in connection with it. Inevitably, rumours of a curse grew — but now a mysterious Baron is fronting the money to re-open it. Everyone shrugs off the old superstitions, until more tragic “accidents” start to occur. A lighting technician is found disemboweled, apparently by the computer programmer. A notable British Egyptologist, brought over to help Nora, goes mad and attacks her, forcing a security guard to shoot and kill him. When his replacement turns out to be the lovely Lady Viola Maskalene, a woman with a profound connection to Pendergast, more people start to suspect that something is up — but all attempts to stall or cancel the exhibit’s opening fail. I don’t want to say too much about the nature of Diogenes’s plan, or how Pendergast figures it out, because there’s so much rich character work that goes on in both of those revelations. Like many elements of the Pendergast series, it dances right on that edge of implausibility.

I like this book best of the series because it handles all the disparate threads so well. None of the plotlines ever feel like it’s gotten subsumed by the others (as the subplots in Brimstone did). The action clips along throughout the book, and the double-climax carries the last 200 pages of the book along superbly. We get to see Pendergast at his best and at his worst, navigating his way through obstacles yet unable to face his own personal history. This book also wraps up the Diogenes trilogy, though not all the threads tie off precisely — there’s plenty to continue carrying through the next books in the series.

As always, P&C do a great job with atmosphere. From the detail of the extremely regulated world of Herkmoor Correctional Facility, to the eerie, gilded claustrophobia of the Tomb of Senef, to the various locations visited in the last 100 pages of the novel, as the story turns from crime to chase, the authors know how to make the reader feel the full effect of where the story is happening. It’s a wonderful way of giving you intimacy with a place you may never have been, and it makes the story that much more real — a necessary quality when other aspects of it may strain credulity.

I highly recommend this book, though I would recommend that you at least read Dance with Death first. The Book of the Dead is one of the most tightly-plotted and best-paced of the Pendergast series, with the added benefits of giving the characters some real, tangible depth.

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