Title: Cold Vengeance (Pendergast #11)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 480 pages
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: somewhere shy of 4 stars
Spoilers: For Fever Dream, the preceding book in the series, as well as other previous Pendergast novels. Most of this review will be spoiler-free for Cold Vengeance, though I will have a clearly marked spoiler-full section at the end.
This is definitely the middle section of a trilogy. That shouldn’t automatically be taken as criticism; The Empire Strikes Back is my favourite of the Star Wars movies, and The Two Towers, in my opinion, is a far better tale than The Fellowship of the Ring. (Well. Half of it is, anyway). There’s nothing wrong with being the filler of the sandwich. But it does make it damn hard to review the thing. Not just for the spoilers, but also because — it doesn’t really begin or end. We start in medias res, with Pendergast on what’s bound to be an ill-fated hunting trip with his erstwhile brother-in-law — whom he has just learned was responsible for his wife Helen’s death. The first few chapters are wonderfully evocative, exploring a boggy mire in Scotland. P&C’s talent for breathing life into a location is as active here as ever, and they walk the reader through the twists and turns of this Highland battle in a way that keeps the tension well-mounted. Eventually (and as this happens in the first few pages, I’m not going to consider it a spoiler), Judson Esterhazy gets his shot in and leaves Pendergast for dead.
This being a Pendergast novel, I don’t think it’s a spoiler, either, to reveal that Pendergast makes yet another of his fabled great escapes — otherwise there’d be very little book left. Once healed, he embarks on a mission to hunt down Judson and determine where Helen might be now. Of course, every avenue he pursues leads to more evidence, apparently incontrovertible, that Helen is dead. Yet Pendergast persists.
I wish Preston & Child had worked in a little more of the revelations from the first book in the trilogy into the opening few chapters, to better remind the reader of what was at stake. It’s been a year since I read Fever Dream, and though my memory for books is pretty good, I was a little hazy on the details. I had trouble remembering exactly what Helen had been up to on Spanish Island that made her so dangerous she had to be killed, had trouble recalling precisely what was unearthed there — and my last review was of no help in jogging my memory, since I was so careful to keep spoilers out of it. So it was a ways through the book before I felt like I was back on terra firma as far as background was concerned, and by that point, all sorts of new confusions had been thrown into the mix.
Overall, the book clips along at the usual good pace of P&C novels, but I admit I found the second act somewhat muddy. It seems to amble and meander a bit, with a lot of shady clues, red herrings, and cul-de-sacs. It could’ve used some tightening up to give it the sort of laser-focused plot I’ve come to expect from the Pendergast series (Wheel of Darkness not withstanding).
Pendergast is also on his own more in this book than ever, eschewing help from the usual suspects. New character Ned Betterton never really gets the chance to take off, which is a little jarring considering how much time we spend with him — he seems very much a character designed to relay information to the reader because no one else is still in the place where that information is, not someone designed as a person in his own right. When Corrie Swanson (of Still Life with Crows) turned up, I was really hopeful she might get to take an active role, but that never quite panned out fully. She hovers at the edges of what Pendergast is doing, trying to unearth some revelations, but she’s not quite the active, engaged partner that D’Agosta, Heywood, Green, Kelly, and Smithback (RIP) have been in the past. Pendergast has gone solo and rogue by this point, yet that doesn’t really serve to clarify the story very well. He continues to keep secrets from the reader, and we have no other solid means of unearthing them.
That said, the last several chapters of the book — which involve a raid on a yacht and urban combat, among other things — are electrifying. This is the sort of close-quarters action we got in some of the earlier novels (Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, and Still Life with Crows come to mind), but with a very super-spy sort of feeling grafted on. It’s a bit of a change from the standard fare, but in some ways, it feels more like Pendergast-as-FBI-agent than we often get to see him. It’s an interesting tactic, and a definite way of rollicking through towards the end of the book —
Which, of course, has no satisfactory ending whatsoever. It’s a cliffhanger by design, as is typical for the middle book of a trilogy. Nothing wraps up, and we end the book with almost no more answers than we began it, and a whole lot more questions. Effective, in its way, but ultimately, I’ll have to wait to see how everything pans out in Two Graves before I can really pass judgment on what happens in Cold Vengeance. It’s an odd feeling to leave a book with — not necessarily bad, but unfulfilled nonetheless.
Alright. From beyond this point, consider yourself in spoiler territory, because I’ve run out of ways to talk about this book without giving away major plot points.
First off, I don’t mourn Ned Betterton (we hardly knew ye, and couldn’t really be compelled to care), though I was a bit surprised that he bit the dust so pre-emptively, but I really hope P&C are punking us about Corrie, because if she’s really dead, I might well and truly have a hissy fit. I think there’s hope — they note she was reaching into her purse just before the gunman fired, so maybe she managed to mace him and spoil his shot or something. I really hope she’s not dead, because I really want her to take an active role in the next book. She deserves it — and it would, to me, feel a fantastic waste of a character to have introduced her way back in Book 4, have kept her in the readers’ consciousness with peppered references to her since then, and then just take her out like this. (Then again, I still feel that killing off Bill Smithback was a waste of a character, so there’s really no telling what P&C might do).
The neo-Nazi angle was a highly unexpected hard left turn. I don’t know that I don’t like it, but I don’t know that I do, either — if that makes sense. This is all down to personal preference. World War II and the Nazis have never been subjects that I voluntarily go to in fiction; it’s just not an area of interest for me. I’m hoping that P&C manage to make this interesting in a new and innovative way, rather than falling into any Nazis-as-villains cliches and pitfalls.
There were a lot of bits and pieces in this book that really didn’t come together for me, and I’m giving P&C the credit that those threads will intertwine in Two Graves. One of the biggest was the revelation of Helen’s faked death. That’s going to require a lot of explanation — and unfortunately, Judson’s now incapable of telling us anything about it. How on earth did he manage that? How did Helen not know? What required the sacrifice of her hand? Honestly, I was pretty infuriated with the utter refusal of either Judson or Helen to explain anything within the confines of this book. I know P&C are heightening the cliffhanger, but in this case, I found it more annoying than pleasingly suspenseful. If there’s good enough payoff in Two Graves, I’ll cheerfully forgive them — but they’ve got a ways to go to get there.