Title: Two Graves (Pendergast #12, Helen Trilogy #3)
Authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 578 pages
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning: It’s going to be very hard to discuss this book without significant spoilers. I will begin with a spoiler-free section (for this book, at least; it would be absolutely impossible to try and talk about this book without spoiling Cold Vengeance, so if you haven’t read that and intend to, turn around now), and then will have a clearly-marked spoilerful section beneath a cut. Read at your own risk.
This book picks up immediately where Cold Vengeance left off, as Helen Esterhazy Pendergast gets kidnapped mere moments after being reunited with our beloved Aloysius. Despite a bullet wound, he takes off after her, following a trail south to Mexico — but when things take a turn for the worse, his quest eventually leads him all the way to South America, hunting down the neo-Nazi organization Der Bund.
As I said in my Cold Vengeance review, Nazi themes really do nothing for me. P&C handle it fairly well, at least creating a somewhat plausible reason for a Nazi cell to have survived for decades without any intervention or investigation. And I did learn a few things about early German colonization in Brazil (which happened long, long before the Nazis — Brazil apparently wanted to attract new settlers so much that they were offering cash). Our familiar friends are out of the way pretty early, present for the New York half of the book, but absent when Pendergast goes abroad. His allies in Brazil, a local honest colonel and a cohort of hand-picked men eager to root out the shadowy Nazi organization lurking in their district, don’t offer much in the way of supporting characters, which is a shame. P&C are capable of creating really great secondary characters, but these guys ultimately felt a lot like Ned Betterton — superfluous and under-drawn.
The pacing of this book is great, though. There’s no real lull in the action, and Pendergast’s emotional journey is as twisted as ever.For all that he’s brilliant and knows how to manipulate the feelings of others to get what he wants, he’s clearly never learnt to deal with his own all that well, but rather to bury them or dismiss them as illogical (there’s something a little Vulcan-esque about A.X.L.P. sometimes, really). It’s once again taking him far, far out of his comfort zone, into a place where his preternatural detective skills can’t actually fix everything, and I appreciate that P&C are willing to do that to their character. We also get to see more of Corrie Swanson in this book, which thrills me (it also reveals that, in-universe, it’s only been four years since the events of Still Life with Crows). I can see her going in a really exciting direction, now that she’s studying criminal justice. I wonder if — and hope that — P&C are grooming her and their readers to set her up as the next primary protagonist for the series. There’s also further development of Constance’s story (which is, if possible, even stranger than Pendergast’s). Two Graves is engaging and well-rounded without ever feeling over-stuffed.
Spoiler Territory: From here on out, consider yourself warned. The significant spoilers start really early in this book, so some of this is discussing things that happen within the first 100 pages — but are still, I think, worth warning about. The rest, however, will go all the way through the end of the book and will discuss the trilogy as a whole.
So, I was definitely not expecting P&C to kill Helen off within the first 70 pages. I refrain from calling it a cheat, though I did feel cheated — but in a way that I find to be an interesting storytelling device. Having gone through so much with Pendergast, to have all those explanations so tantalizingly close, and then ripped away so quickly, was just brutal. But the reader gets no time to grieve. The book moves immediately into more familiar territory — a serial killer loose in New York City, one who bizarrely appears to be leaving bits of himself behind at each gruesome murder. D’Agosta ends up in charge of the case, along with a new, by-the-book FBI agent — but he wants Pendergast’s help, feeling sure that no one else has quite the right skills to get to the bottom of this incredible case. Unfortunately, Pendergast has gone into an intense depressive spiral following Helen’s death, all the worse because the sudden bereavement is coupled with guilt and astonishment over his failure. Not succeeding at his goal has affected him tremendously, and when D’Agosta forces his way into Pendergast’s apartment, he finds the ever-precise agent in a state of slovenly chaos and on the brink of suicide. His initial attempt to rouse Pendergast’s interest in the case fails, but subsequent visits by Corrie and Viola Maskelene have a bit of a cumulative effect, finally stirring him from his sloth.
And sure enough, it turns out that these murders were staged precisely to get Pendergast’s attention — something confirmed when a young man matching the identity of the killer shows up at Pendergast’s house, bleeding profusely, begging for help, and claiming to be Pendergast’s son. And the story gets even stranger when it turns out that Pendergast in fact has twin sons, raised in a bizarre neo-Nazi compound in the rainforest. For generations, they’ve been breeding for excellence, and in recent decades have started using advanced genetic modification techniques to select for the best traits. They use twins so that they can tinker with the development at every stage, swapping out any genes with coding errors, controlling for any fetal abnormalities, etc. Admittedly, the science here is all pretty blurry and hand-waved, but P&C frequently trend towards sci-fi in their thrillers, so I’m not too bothered by it. (I am left with questions, though — did Judson have a “defective” twin? Whatever happened to him? And if Helen knew the consequences of becoming pregnant considering her genetic modifications, did girlfriend not have access to birth control? She was a doctor, for crying out loud!). The lesser twins are kept alive as slaves, working menial tasks to keep the compound going, and also serving as blood banks and organ donors for their brothers and sisters. With the genetic melding of Helen, already a fairly advanced generation, and Pendergast, exceptional in himself, they managed to get their uber-soldier: the evil twin, called Alban. As a test, he’d been sent out to be a serial killer in New York, and he used his brother for the spare parts he left behind at the crime scenes. Though the “defective” twin and utterly ignorant thanks to an upbringing devoid of any education or socialization, Tristram (so named by Pendergast, pretty depressingly if you know your etymology) is no slouch himself — even the inferior genes from Helen and Aloysius, it seems, are strong. Unfortunately, Alban manages to infiltrate the house on Riverside Drive, re-abducts Tristram, and disappears back to Brazil. So Pendergast has to follow — not just to rescue Tristram, but to root out the organization once and for all, destroying its ability to do further harm.
I have to say, with how much I love The Codex, I was rather hoping for more time spent with Pendergast actually in the jungle, but that part passes quickly, moving straight on to the confrontation at the compound. Through his explorations, we finally get to learn a bit more about Helen’s secrets and the operation of this group. Pendergast’s allies meet their tragic if predictable fates, leaving him to face down the evil twin and his masters alone. Just how he gets out of it is pretty interesting — but I think I’ll leave that, if nothing else, for readers to discover on their own.
So, overall, this was a pretty great book. It might’ve gotten five stars if it weren’t for my general lack of enthusiasm over Nazis as a plot device. The plot is excellent, even where implausible, and we get to see Pendergast on a really great (in that it’s torturous and difficult) emotional journey. I know I didn’t talk much about the Corrie and Constance subplots, but they’re interesting as well — though, unusually for a P&C novel, totally dissociated from the main plot. I certainly would not recommend this book as a starting point for the series — in fact, I wouldn’t recommend the Helen Trilogy at all until you’ve read at least the Diogenes Trilogy. It isn’t that the plot can’t stand alone, but a reader would have no hope of getting the most out of the character arcs without knowing Pendergast et al a bit better.