Tag Archives: mystery

The Lord Meren Mysteries, #1-3, by Lynda S. Robinson

MurderAnubisTitles: Murder at the Place of Anubis, Murder at the God’s Gate, Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing
Author: Lynda S. Robinson
Years of Publication: 1994 / 1995 / 1997
Length: 224 / 288 / 258 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

MurderGodsGateI’ve decided to review the first trilogy of this series all together, since the books are sort of too short to treat with individually. (Not that you couldn’t. It would just make for very short posts, and I’m more likely to complete one long one than three short ones).

The Lord Meren mysteries are set in ancient Egypt, taking place during the reign of Tutankhamun. Each book has its own murders to solve, but they weave together into a larger political plot regarding the tensions of the time. These books posit Tutankhamun as the younger brother of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten (DNA tests in 2010 revealed him to be most probably Akhenaten’s son, but these books work from a different dynastic theory, popular and viable in the 1990s). MurderRejoicingAkhenaten had tried to turn Egypt into a monotheistic society, going so far as to construct a new capital for his sun god; though the kingdom reverted after his death, old tensions between the two factions persist in Robinson’s version of Tut’s Egypt. Lord Meren is “the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh”, his chief investigator, who also bears the coveted title Friend of the King. Along with advisers Ay, Horemheb, and Maya, he works to keep peace between the court and the still-resentful priests of Amun, protecting the young king until he can grow into himself and govern Egypt with wisdom and strength. This is all, of course, very sad, since everyone knows that Tutankhamun dies at 19 — and if you know what happens between Ay and Horemheb afterwards, it’s even worse. That shadow hangs over the series, but not so heavily as to be a distraction.

Robinson does a great job of evoking her setting. She has clearly done her research when it comes to Egyptology — there are so many wonderful cultural nuances, everything from dressing rituals to furniture to food. It’s both alien and familiar, as is entirely appropriate for a world removed from ours by several thousand years. People are people, on the whole, motivated by more or less the same desires throughout history — but the dressings change. The morality is different. The etiquette is foreign. But Robinson brings the reader through it deftly. Only occasionally do her explanations get a little too heavy-handed, and she does have a habit of repeating herself. For the most part, however, she illustrates the world of the 18th Dynasty beautifully. She also handles the detective work nicely — an interesting feat without the benefits of modern science. A lot of what Meren does is simple deduction, or the sort of science that they had available to them (the Egyptians were, for example, experts on many poisons), but there’s also superstition and religion mixed up in it. For instance, when there’s a suspicious death, Meren brings in a priest to check for signs of magical interference. In this way, Robinson makes sure that the mystery-solving never feels anachronistic. Meren is a brilliant and capable man of his time, truly exceptional — but he remains a man of his time, not apart from it, which I appreciate.

All three books have snappy, quick-moving plots. In Place of Anubis, a man is killed in the sacred place of embalming, and his wife, sons, concubine, and coworkers all seem to have reason to have done it. In God’s Gate, one death, made to look like an accident, sets of a chain of murders pointing at a conspiracy among the priests. In Feast of Rejoicing, Meren’s cousin-by-marriage dies at his house, forcing him to examine his own relatives as potential suspects, all the while trying to protect his teenaged daughters from harm. Throughout all three, another mystery surfaces: the fate of Queen Nefertiti, assumed to have died of plague — but Meren comes to suspect it may not have been so simple a tragedy. He also has to work to keep the young king Tutankhamun sheltered, but without hobbling his growth as a ruler — and he has to help the king protect the mummified remains of Akhenaten, the very pharaoh who caused so many problems for Meren.

Lord Meren, his adopted son Kysen, and his daughter Bener (introduced only in the third book) are the best things about this series. They’re wonderful characters. Meren is haunted by the past, both by his own capitulation to the blasphemy of the Aten and to his role in Akhenaten’s death (a sin of omission more than anything else, but still a source of guilt for the honorable Meren). Akhenaten had Meren’s father killed, then imprisoned and tortured Meren into accepting his new god; during Akhenaten’s reign, Meren had to bear witness to all sorts of fits of madness, blasphemies, and desecrations, and he has never been able to forgive himself for being party to it. Akhenaten was also responsible for the murders of the wife and child of Meren’s cousin Ebana, a priest of Amun, causing lasting tension between them. Meren also has a jealous younger brother who was spoiled by their abusive father, a sly former friend and potential lover called Bentanta, a host of meddling relatives, and three daughters growing up too quickly for him to handle. Bener, the middle daughter, is fiendishly clever, with a tendency to buck proper gender roles in an attempt to help her father. Kysen was adopted by Meren as a child, plucked from his own abusive father, lifted from a commoner’s life to the glories of the court, and never quite comfortable there. He follows in Meren’s footsteps, learning the methods of detective work and interrogation, helping Meren to piece together the puzzles. Together, they make an intriguing and complex family.

I can happily recommend these books to fans of murder mysteries and historicals. I read them first when I was about 12, and I return to them every few years, just as light, easily digestible summer reads. They aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are well-rendered, engaging, and well worth spending a few hours with. I would also recommend them to anyone who enjoys the Pendergast novels (as many of my followers do). There are some similarities between Meren and our beloved Aloysius, and the tangled family dynamics twisting into the murders has a similar appeal.

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The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

BookmansTale

Title: The Bookman’s Tale
Author: Charlie Lovett
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 352 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4.25 stars

The Bookman’s Tale is the story of Peter, an antiquarian bookseller who, in the midst of grieving for his recently-departed wife, finds what appears to be a Victorian-era watercolor of her, pressed inside an old copy of Edmond Malone’s An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers (the book exposing William Henry Ireland’s forgeries of Shakespearean manuscripts). Though he knows the painting can’t possibly be of his wife, he feels compelled to find out the identity of both painter and subject. Hunting down this information leads him to stumble across an early edition of Robert Greene’s Pandosto, the source material for The Winter’s Tale. While this would be an extraordinary find on its own, what makes this particular book even more astonishing is the marginalia: a series of notes apparently written by Shakespeare as he composed his play. Peter thinks that he may have realized his life-long dream to find evidence proving once and for all that Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, but he knows enough of the history of forgeries to be wary of deception, and so he sets out on a quest to determine the book’s authenticity. He’s not the only one on the trail, however, and people with a lot to lose if Pandosto proves authentic are willing to kill to preserve its secrets.

The book moves along three separate but interrelated storylines: the first set in 1995, when Peter finds the copy of Pandosto and goes on his quest; the second set in the 1980s, when Peter begins his career in rare books at college, and which also charts his relationship with Amanda from their first meeting to its tragic end; and the third spanning from 1592 through the 1870s, tracking the transmission of one copy of Pandosto through time and through the exchange of many hands. The historical plotline delves into the world of playmaking and printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, showing what a cutthroat business it really could be, driven by rivalries, egos, and personal vendettas. Of the three storylines, the least relevant to the driving plot is the 1980s thread — but that is the storyline which gives this book its heart. It’s what makes you care about Peter, and it’s what makes you feel that his quest matters not only scholastically, but personally as well. It also provides a lot of the connective tissue which ultimately ties the loose ends of the story together, because the reader gets to see Peter learn his trade as well as learn to come out of his shell and engage with Amanda’s family and friends.

I received this book from the publisher, in exchange for a review, and I will freely admit that I had a lot of reservations — and I will just as freely admit that they were all, thankfully, rendered irrelevant. I worried this would be yet another Da Vinci Code knockoff, and while I have nothing against that genre of book in general, the quality can be alarmingly varied. I worried it would have an anti-Stratfordian bent, because I have learned to be leery when I see phrases like “prove the truth about Shakespeare’s identity” on book jackets (as turned out to be the problem with Interred with Their Bones). I worried that the dead-wife angle would make it too maudlin, too Gothic for my personal tastes (as was my trouble with the well-written but not-to-my-preference The Thirteenth Tale). I’m very happy to say that, as it turns out, I had nothing to fear on all three counts.

The biggest problem, I think, is that the summary really doesn’t do the book justice. For one thing, it makes it sound like the book is a lot more about the painting and the Victorian angle, when the far greater focus is on textual transmission and the development of the Shakespeare brand through the centuries. It’s also not nearly as mournful in tone as the jacket makes it out to be, nor is the vaguely paranormal element the jacket hints at as prevalent. Peter is a strong protagonist without needing to be an action hero, and I appreciate him for that. He is, definitely, a scholar and a bookseller, and at no point during the story does he morph into a super-spy or an Indiana Jones. He remains what he is, using his intelligence, his inquisitive nature, and his training in the field of early modern publishing to hunt down the mystery. I also appreciated that Lovett could give us an introverted protagonist with social anxiety problems and still have him be a strong character. Peter struggles a lot, both early in the 1980s storyline and in the 1995 storyline, with social interaction, but the reader gets to see him learn how to deal with that. He finds his safe spaces and safe people. Unfortunately, since Amanda was the one who drew him out to begin with, after her death, he retreats from the world and isolates himself entirely — so a lot of the story isn’t just his quest to find the truth behind Pandosto, it’s about him finding closure with her death and learning to be that more-adjusted version of himself again, even without her. It’s a deeper and more emotionally satisfying angle than I was expecting the book to have, and it strengthens the narrative.

I only have a few minor complaints, most of which didn’t really impede my enjoyment of the book: Some of the twists and turns are a little predictable, but that doesn’t bother me much. After all, as Shakespeare so often reminds us, knowing the plot isn’t the same as knowing the story. The Bookman’s Tale is less a fast-paced thriller and more a historical-psychological exploration with a dash of mystery, and I appreciate that Lovett didn’t seem to feel much need to hammer it into another form. The threat of danger towards the end is the only place it gets a little Da Vinci Code-y, but even there, The Bookman’s Tale strains plausibility far less than other books in this genre. There were only a few details throughout which I found far-fetched, such as a professor of Shakespeare at an esteemed university never having heard of Q1 Hamlet (but perhaps, in the 1980s, that could have been true? I don’t know). The secondary romantic interest felt a little tacked-on and unnecessary. The book definitely would have worked just as well without that aspect, but Lovett also isn’t too heavy-handed about it, so it’s easy to ignore.

I can cheerfully recommend The Bookman’s Tale as a great summer read for any Shakespeare enthusiast, but particularly, I think, for the sort who has a real interest in the early modern world of playmaking and printing. There’s more substance here than to your typical novel of this sort, and a lot more “Easter eggs” slipped in for the benefit of readers-in-the-know. I think those of a scholarly bent will appreciate the attention to detail which Lovett gives the history of textual transmission. The sections set during Shakespeare’s lifetime are full of wonderful details, intriguing cameos, and cheeky off-hand references. Lovett clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the playhouses and the print culture of early modern England. The Bookman’s Tale would actually be a great companion book to Shapiro’s Contested Will, in some ways, because it takes a fictionalized look at the true history of how Shakespeare mania grew over the centuries into a force which spawned forgeries and erroneous theories. It just released this week, so pick it up at your local bricks-and-mortar or on Amazon.

Cross-posted, with some additions and adjustments, from the American Shakespeare Center Education Blog.

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The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Title: The Thirteenth TaleThirteenthTale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 406 pages
Genre: Gothic fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

I am in the unusual position of thinking that a book was exceptionally well-written and compelling, and yet still not liking it very much.

The Thirteenth Tale is a modern Gothic tale, very much in the vein of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, The Woman in White — and Setterfield is not only consciously aware of it, but calls attention to it throughout the novel. Her heroine, Margaret, is steeped in these books, but also in obscure biographies. She works at her father’s used book store and has never, it seems, really had to do much of anything; her father occasionally trades in priceless literary artifacts, and that sustains her family while the shop is just a side project. She is introverted to the point of being something of a recluse, and she is haunted by her dead twin — a twin who did not survive much past birth. Her mother could never emotionally connect to her because of this (something I’ll expound on later).

Margaret is surprised to receive a summons to write the biography of the notoriously private but fabulously successful writer Vida Winter, whom the narrative posits as a modern-day Dickens, voice of England in a new century. Winter has stalwartly refused all previous attempts at biography, but she knows she’s dying and she chooses Margaret (for reasons that become clear as the book goes on) to document her life. Margaret is suspicious at first, knowing that Winter could easily play her and fob another falsity off on her, so she asks for verifiable details. She gets a few, including Winter’s real name – Adeline March. And then Winter starts telling her story.

It’s compelling, dark, twisted, and thoroughly saturated with death. It begins with death — her grandmother’s, leading to her grandfather’s withdrawal from society. Their children, Charlie and Isabelle, grow up almost entirely without supervision; Charlie becomes obsessed with Isabelle. She goes along with him, teases him, but eventually runs off and marries another man — only to return with twins not much later, announcing that her brief husband is dead. The twins, indiscriminately named Emmeline and Adeline, have Charlie’s colouring. Draw your own conclusions. The twins grow up even more feral than Charlie and Isabelle did, speaking in their own language. Adeline is brutally destructive and without empathy; Emmeline is soft, weak-willed, controlled by her sister, and captivated by stories. The cook and gardener do little to influence them; a governess briefly instills a bit of order but is driven away by scandal. That’s the inner story. The outer story is also saturated with death. Winter is dying, Margaret cares more about dead people than she does about the living, someone else she meets was abandoned as a child and everyone he knows seems to be dead — themes of death and loss just permeate the entire book.

And that is what made it really difficult for me to enjoy. It was just too morbid. I am, by nature, far more sanguine. I mean, it certainly isn’t that I mind death in a story, but throughout The Thirteenth Tale, it just seems as though everyone is luxuriating in death, utterly steeped in it and not particularly willing to be otherwise. Margaret, for example, keenly feels the lack of her mother’s attention — though Margaret must be at least thirty years old by now, she’s never formed another social network, so that has remained a powerful influence on her. And I can’t forgive her mother for that neglect. I can’t even imagine what a devastating loss it must be, to lose a child — but I must also think that, when it’s a child you lose at birth and never know, and when there is another child there who needs you, then it must be a recoverable loss. I cannot fathom nor can I excuse that sort of neglect. But Margaret has never shown any inclination not to be ruled by it or by her dead twin’s ghost, either — rather she ensconces herself in the loss, and that is a point of view I also cannot see from.

I also can’t figure out when the book is set, and that just drives me up the wall. I know it’s intentional — the reader’s guide at the back of the book indicates as much. But I just can’t stand it. It distracts me throughout the entire book. Margaret’s part of the story, the “present day” as far as the narrative is concerned, could be anywhere from the 1950s to the advent of the Internet. When a character is mentioned as having gone to war, there’s no indication of which war. The family is so removed from society and untouched by world events that there’s no indication of what decade the story begins in. The twins could be growing up anywhere from Victoria’s last few decades to the 1930s, knowing only that sixty years have passed between the close of that story and when Vida Winter seeks out Margaret. I couldn’t pin it down, because Setterfield deliberately didn’t want me to, and that frustrated me immensely.

But for all of that, The Thirteenth Tale really is well written. Like I said, I found it compelling even as I disliked it, and the technical proficiency is quite high. Winter’s pronouns as she tells the tale of the twins are particularly well-handled, and the weaving of frame narrative and the meat and bones of the story is deft. The twist at the end was unexpected, but still managed to tie up all the loose ends. Setterfield also deals rather smartly with the idea of unreliable narrators — Margaret wonders throughout the whole book if Winter is being completely honest with her, but, of course, we as readers can never know either way, since the book is written from Margaret’s point-of-view, and we don’t know if she’s being honest with us, either. It’s an interesting angle from which to approach storytelling, and Setterfield makes a nice job of it.

So, on the whole, I can’t recommend this book quite as full-throatedly as I have some others — I just know that others may find far more enjoyment in it than I did. If you like Gothic novels, then, by all means, delve into this one.

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Dance of Death, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

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.

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Brimstone, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Brimstone (Pendergast #5)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 752 pages
Genre: thriller
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.

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The Cabinet of Curiosities, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: The Cabinet of Curiosities
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 629 pages
Genre: mystery-thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

The Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the more sophisticated and subtle of the Pendergast thrillers. Despite the sci-fi element being more genuinely plausibility-straining and utterly critical to the story, you don’t feel it for most of the book. The sci-fi twist isn’t the point, and it doesn’t set the mood. This feels more like an old-time Victorian mystery — not least because the book takes a couple of speculative dips back in time.

In The Cabinet of Curiosities, construction for a new building unearths a gruesome charnal house, over a hundred years old. The skeletons are testament to America’s most prolific serial killer — whose crimes had never before been revealed or even suspected. This alone would be a fairly compelling story, but what really gets the attention of our usual assembly of heroes is when “copycat” crimes start popping up in New York City — men and women attacked and brutalized, part of their spinal cord removed, while they’re still alive. Though the NYPD considers these copycats to be inspired by the news about the archaeological site (and blames reporter Bill Smithback for breaking the story), Pendergast insists that the connection is far more direct and important than that.

The female lead and primary research in this book is Nora Kelly, girlfriend of Bill Smithback. (They meet in a spinoff novel, Thunderhead, which I was going to read ahead of this book before I realised I don’t actually own it). She serves more or less the same function as Margo Green, but she’s a character with a bit more bite to her. She and Pendergast are thwarted consistently: by Nora’s boss at the Museum, who doesn’t want her involved, by Anthony Fairhaven, the developer who owns the land on which the 130-year-old bodies were found, and by the New York Mayor’s office, who don’t want them upsetting Fairhaven, a significant political contributor. Nonetheless, Pendergast enlists the aid and wins the loyalty of policeman Patrick Murphy O’Shaughnessy — originally assigned as a liaison to try and slow Pendergast down, but who quickly joins in the hunt, feeling reinvigorated in his career by the detective work. And of course, Bill’s running around, picking up pieces of information, helping Pendergast in unexpected ways, and generally pissing off every authority figure he encounters. (I have, if it hasn’t become apparent yet, quite a soft spot for Bill Smithback).

Though the whole series has been retroactively dubbed the Pendergast series, and though Pendergast certainly played a critical role in Relic and Reliquary, this is the first book where it really does become his series. Not that that means we suddenly know everything about him. Even when you’re in his head, seeing things from his perspective, even joining him on some of his decidedly unusual meditations, Pendergast remains a cypher in so many ways — which is, of course, so much of what makes him so utterly fascinating as a character. We do get more tantalizing hints here, about his past, about his family, with its streak of madness, and about his unique methods, blending Eastern mysticism with modern forensics.

This is also the first book of the series where P&C kill off a character you really care about. I remember being thoroughly shocked when it happened, and when it became apparent that, yes, they really had killed him, this was not a fake-out (because P&C are also masters of misdirection). They dig in the knife and twist. It’s a habit they keep up in further books. (Someday, someone should do a body count of all their books, with a separate list of near-death-experiences).

This is a great thriller, a really chilly one, which easily blends modern science with metaphysical speculation. The healthy dose of Victoriana adds a delightfully macabre frisson to the story, a thread of the detective stories of previous generations. And, as always, P&C are great with character — they can sketch someone out in vivid detail in just a few pages, but they can also craft characters who are so deep, so complex, who can seem so real or nigh-supernatural. For all of these reasons, The Cabinet of Curiosities is among my favorite P&C novels, and I recommend it to all lovers of the mystery-thriller genre.

Buy ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities’ at amazon.com.

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Reliquary, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Reliquary  (Pendergast #2)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 1997
Length: 480 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

This book is definitely a sequel. An entertaining and eminently readable sequel, but still, a sequel.

A couple of years after the horrific murders perpetrated by the ‘Museum Beast’, strange corpses start popping up across New York — corpses with their heads smashed in, cut off, or sliced open in some fashion, to get at precisely the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that Mbwun needed to eat in order to survive. The trouble is, this time it looks like there’s more than one monster. At first, no one pays much attention to it, because the first victims are drawn from New York’s massive homeless community. It’s only when a missing socialite turns up dead and headless in the Hudson that the story starts getting press — and that certain members of the NYPD, specifically Lieutenant D’Agosta, start putting the pieces together. Naturally, the re-emergence of this kind of serial killing brings Special Agent Pendergast back on the scene as well.

As the book progresses, we learn that Greg Kawakita, from Relic, discovered the secret of the Mbwun plant — that eating it could actually turn you into the monster creature, by means of a reovirus. He found out that the original explorer who found the Mbwun’s home territory and tribe must have been force-fed the plant and turned into the creature that terrorised the Museum years before. Kawakita then attempted to distill out the more physically horrifying genes, aiming to create a “purer” form of the reovirus, that would enhance the user’s sensory perception and intelligence without turning him into a reptilian-ape-creature-from-hell. Unfortunately, he started testing it before it was perfected, leading to a society of partially transformed mutants, mad with the need for their drug and turning increasingly murderous.

The most interesting aspect of Reliquary is, I think, the subterranean world of the homeless, too many to be counted, both victims and perpetrators of the ongoing crimes. The introduction of this hitherto hidden world is fascinating, from the paranoid intelligence of Mephisto to the survival tactics of the underground dwellers. This plot element also introduces us to Laura Hayward, a member of the NYPD specializing in rousting, who happens to be working on an advanced degree on the sociology of the homeless. I can’t remember if that particular focus comes back in later books, but whether her academic focus remains consistent or not, Hayward is a great character and an excellent addition to the series’s rotating cast.

This book introduces more of Pendergast’s unorthodox methods. He disguises himself as the head of a homeless community in order to meet with Mephisto, the king of the underground who gives Pendergast, reporter Bill Smithback, and D’Agosta information on what his people have seen of the mutant murderers. Later on, we see Pendergast operating as a one-man SWAT team, fully decked out in urban camo and carrying enough weaponry to invade a small nation. Really, if there’s anything Pendergast can’t do, we haven’t seen it yet.

Reliquary is readable but not critical to following the Pendergast series. It’s most notable for its addition of Laura Hayward, but other than that, you won’t miss much by skipping on to the far superior Cabinet of Curiosities. (I should mention that most of the novels function well enough as stand-alones, and do not need to be read in-sequence. I read them completely out of order on my first go – and I’m someone who that would usually drive crazy to do). There’s a lot that’s forgettable about this book, but benignly so.

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