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Two Graves, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Two Graves (Pendergast #12, Helen Trilogy #3)TwoGraves
Authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 578 pages
Genre: thriller
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.

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Utopia, by Lincoln Child

Title: UtopiaUtopia
Author: Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 464 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

I’m terrified of roller coasters. It isn’t the speed or the height or the drops — it’s that I don’t trust them. Whenever I board one, I cannot get past the suspicion that it’s going to break and kill me. I’m someone who doesn’t like being out of control, and so I don’t get a thrill from consigning my body to a contraption of steel and electronics for the sole purpose of having the living daylights scared out of me. I just plain don’t find roller coasters fun.

This book is certainly not going to help my opinion of them. The incident in the first chapter of the book, where a child comes loose of the safety bar thanks to an electronic engineering failure, is literally the stuff of my nightmares. But that exploration of worst case scenarios was, bizarrely, part of what made this book so fascinating for me (even if it will make it even more challenging to board “The Mummy Ride” the next time I’m in Orlando).

Utopia takes place in an imagined theme park in Nevada — and, roller coasters aside, it’s a theme park I’d love to go to. It envisions the sort of immersive experience that many theme parks (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and WDW’s New Fantasyland) are moving towards, integrating total environmental details, committed cast members, and, most critically for the book, new technology in robotics and holograms. Divided into four sections — medieval Camelot, foggily romantic Victorian Gaslight, the cheery seaside Boardwalk, and the futuristic Callisto, with waterpark Atlantis in development — Utopia aims to dissociate its guests from reality for the length of a day.

This is a really fun book to read if you know a lot about theme parks. For all that I hate roller coasters, I love Busch Gardens, Disney World, and Universal Studios, and I have friends who’ve worked at those parks, which means I know more than the average visitor about how they work. Reading Utopia is sort of like playing catch-the-reference: many of its secrets are based on those of Disney World. Child spends a lot of time detailing the parks themselves, and honestly, those were my favourite parts of the book. I like knowing how things like that work, so when he discusses the decompression methods that the park uses to transition guests into each of the park’s worlds, or talks about the cast members moving in the “subterranean” layers, or about the interactive elements of the parks’ environment, I was totally engaged and fascinated.

The conflict of the book comes from a gang of criminals determined to incite mayhem and, by doing so, milk the park for its technological secrets and quite a bit of cash. A network of specialists, largely unknown to each other, works to infiltrate the park’s computer and security systems. Their hacking causes a few “warning signals” at first — initially harmless though annoying shutdowns and malfunctions, and then the first real calamity, the coaster accident in the first chapter of the book. Initially believing it to be a problem with the robotics, the park calls in Andrew Warne, a genius computer engineer who designed the system — he thinks he’s being solicited to help with the Atlantis expansion, but really they want him to take his systems off-line for repairs. He happens to arrive on the same day that the criminals make their presence known, issuing a threat to the park administration that if their demands are met, no one gets hurt — but that if they aren’t met, all of the park’s 65,000 guests are in potential jeopardy. Unfortunately, his presence spooks the gang, who weren’t counting on the park having someone who could possibly root them out — and who make a target not only of Warne, but of his daughter Georgia, whom he brought to the park with him.

There’s a sub-conflict, too, and one which I sort of wish had gotten more attention: the idea that, by focusing so much attention on the roller coasters and thrill rides rather than on the immersive world experience, the park has drifted away from the vision of its creator, who died before he could see his dream fulfilled. That fuels a lot of the inner turmoil for Warne, who was a friend of the creator and who got edged out of the park after his death. Warne also had a relationship with the current park manager, Sarah Boatwright, which influences the dynamics on the personal side of the story.

My biggest complaint about the book is that I felt like it rather pulled its punches. I’ve gotten used to the unflinching horror of P&C’s Pendergast series, and Preston’s stand-alones are pretty gruesome, too. Almost every incident in Utopia, however, turns out to be not quite as bad as Child initially leads the reader to believe. As a result, the stakes don’t feel quite as high as they ought to. Logically, you know that disaster could be imminent — but for most of the book, the heat and the tension just isn’t there. Coming into this straight after re-reading Relic and Reliquary may not have been the best idea, in retrospect, because it caused a dissociation between what I was expecting and what the book ended up giving me.

I also feel like there were some missed opportunities with the technology. Child spends a lot of time talking about how the park uses technology to manipulate emotions as well as to entertain — scents and sounds that create “good vibes”. It led me to expect that part of the villains’ scheme would be to use the emotions of the park guests against them — to change those sensory input systems to trigger fear, panic, violence rather than joy and contentment. By contrast, what the villains actually ended up doing with bombs, weaponry, and electronics just seemed crude. (It’s also really, really easy to figure out who one of the criminals is, if you’re someone who can pick up on the right sort of information — I don’t want to give it away, since it’s meant to be an element of suspense and confusion, but… well, for me, because of a very particular skill set I have, it was almost ridiculously obvious).

Child clearly did his research when it comes to amusement parks, though, and his skill at keeping a plot tripping along is as good as ever. Utopia makes me wonder if he’s often responsible for the victim-viewpoint chapters in the Pendergast novels, since that’s a trope we get here that I don’t recall seeing much in Preston’s solo work. It’s something I enjoy in a book, and a testament to a writer’s skill, to draw a realistic character than a reader will care about in just an introductory page or two.

On the whole, Utopia is an engaging and creative thriller, even if I feel like it missed a few opportunities. I can cheerfully recommend it to anyone who likes P&C’s work, to lovers of thrillers and suspense, and to those fascinated by theme parks and their operations.

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Cold Vengeance, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Cold Vengeance (Pendergast #11)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 480 pages
Genre: thriller
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.

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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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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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Still Life with Crows, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Still Life with Crows (Pendergast #4)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 592 pages
Genre: mystery-thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

If anyone ever asked me to play “one of these things is not like the other” with the Pendergast series, this would be the book I would choose. (Well, perhaps this and also Wheel of Darkness, which we’ll get to later). It has a very different feel to it than the other books do, thanks in large part to its very different setting, and also, ultimately, to its very different criminal.

Still Life with Crows finds Agent Pendergast in Medicine Creek, Kansas — of all places. Medicine Creek is a dying town, suffering from lack of jobs, lack of tourism, lack of, well, anything. Its one hope hinges on some experiment cornfields that Kansas State University might plant in the town’s territory — unless they choose neighboring town Deeper. The situation infuses the characters native to Medicine Creek with a certain desperation in a very different way than the characters in the New York books typically have.

With the review for the KSU cornfields underway, it’s pretty much the worst time ever for a serial killer to crop up. Admittedly, there’s never a good time for that, but you take my meaning. It’s attracting attention of the wrong sort, particularly because the nature of the gruesome killings suggests a correlation to the vengeful ghosts of local Native Americans. One victim is found naked in a cornfield, surrounded by the arrow-impaled bodies of crows. Another is boiled alive, buttered and sugared. Another is cut open and has creepy-crawlies sewn up inside of him. The killings are clearly deranged, but Pendergast struggles with getting a profile on the killer, because he seems to be neither the “organised” nor the “disorganised” variety of serial killer. There’s no recognisable pattern to his murders, yet the ritual nature of several of them suggests some kind of underlying order, at least in the killer’s mind. Thus is Pendergast’s challenge: to figure out the inscrutable mystery behind these strange murders. His job isn’t made easier by the local PD, who, resentful of his intrusion into the town’s matters, decides that the killer must be from Deeper, trying to scare the KSU rep into not choosing Medicine Creek. He barrels on with this idea despite a lack of evidence, threatening Pendergast if he keeps getting involved, and generally causes a lot of trouble.

I honestly find a lot of this book forgettable. On re-reading it, I had trouble remembering the sequence of events and the endgame. I had a vague awareness of how everything was interrelated, but the finer details escaped me. Overall, this book has less to do with the overall Pendergast series than any of the others, and there’s never really any good explanation for why Pendergast even ended up there in the first place. I do thank this book, though, for giving us Corrie Swanson. Corrie is a disaffected teenager with Goth affectations, desperate to get out of Medicine Creek and away from her alcoholic mother forever. She ends up Pendergast’s assistant, and he demonstrates a faith in her intelligence and abilities that no one’s ever really shown her before — and with that, and her salary for helping him with the investigation, he also gives her hope for a way out.

Overall, this isn’t one of the better Pendergast novels, in my opinion. It’s the odd duck out, the plot meanders a bit too much, and it’s not quite as gripping a premise as some of the others. It’s worth a read if you’re in it for the whole series, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it in isolation.

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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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Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Relic (Pendergast #1)
Authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 468 pages
Genre: sci-fi thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

The first book in the Pendergast series is just what it promises to be: a mystery-thriller with an intriguing sci-fi twist. Unusual, gruesome deaths are piling up at the New York Museum of Natural History, characterised by two disturbing traits: gaping chest wounds, like those inflicted by predatory animals, and missing brains — which appear to be eaten. Margo Green, a researcher at the Museum, finds herself at the center of the mystery, attempting to piece together scraps of information — hints from a disastrous mission to the Amazon, forensic clues, genetic oddities. At the museum, she works with her supervisor, Dr. Frock, and prodigy geneticist Greg Kawakita. On the law enforcement side of things, Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta is investigating the homicides, aided by the nigh-preternatural FBI Special Agent Pendergast. Pendergast, though his role is fairly small in this first book, is the focal point of this whole series of loosely-connected thrillers. Part James Bond, part Sherlock Holmes, wrapped up in the package of a Louisiana polymath. He’s a Gentleman and a Scholar who also knows several hundred ways to kill you. Margo’s also friends with Bill Smithback, a journalist who’s been hired by the Museum to write a book about the venerable institution — and who’s been chafing at the censorship imposed by the Museum’s head of public relations.

So. These are our protagonists. The first murders in the Museum seem a tragedy. But as the bodies start mounting, the situation becomes ever more dire –yet the Museum is determined to go forward with the opening night of a new exhibit, called Superstition. As it happens, one of the key pieces of this exhibit is a figurine of Mbwun, an Amazonian monstrosity who appears to have been worshiped (or at least venerated) by a remote tribe… and the figurine depicts a creature with traits that fit the profile of the murderer/murder weapons. And so rumours start to build of a Museum Beast, lurking in the bowels of the Museum… While D’Agosta and Pendergast are convinced by the scientists as to the increasing viability of this hypothesis, the Museum heads and the head of the New York FBI office aren’t buying it, and insist on going forward with the opening… setting the stage for a whole lot of trouble.

P&C have a talent for description, both atmospheric and characteristic. Though I have no doubt readers with a more intimate familiarity with the Museum of Natural History would get even greater enjoyment out of this book, they draw vivid enough pictures for those of us, like myself, who’ve only made brief passes through years earlier, or those who’ve never set foot in that museum at all. From the vast open hallways to the claustrophobic below-ground research labs, the sense of place is incredibly strong, as is the sense of mood — vitally important to a thriller. When the Beast pursues Margo, I could clearly visualise her dim, shadowy surroundings, I could feel Margo’s barely-controlled panic, I could hear the snuffling of the beast. P&C handle both stillness and chaos deftly.

The sense of character is also great. P&C have an ability which I often associate with Law and Order episodes — to evoke a very specific personality, with a distinct background, in a very short amount of time. Of course, by mid-book, you start strongly suspecting that anyone new introduced is probably going to be the next victim, but that’s not too much to overcome. The major characters all have complex backgrounds — which often aren’t even fully explored in this book (Pendergast’s less than anyone’s) — and while they certainly all have their flaws, it’s that psychological veracity that makes them so compelling. Many of these characters weave through P&C’s other novels, both within and outside of the Pendergast series, which makes returning to them, either in re-reads or when each new book comes out, rather like returning to old friends. These books often get compared to Michael Crichton’s work, and I think the strong characters are what actually make them better. They do the science, the thrills, and the mystery all very well, too, but the magnetic personalities are what bring me back to these books time and again.

Overall, this book is a fun, quick read and the start to a great series. It’s certainly not high literature — and it doesn’t need to be. But it is incredibly high-quality brain candy. I thoroughly recommend Relic, the rest of the Pendergast series, and all of P&C’s work, both as a pair and individually (and I’ll be reading and reviewing the rest over the coming months). Read them on the beach, on planes, at the park — read them when you’ve been working too hard and need to give your brain a treat. They’re a wonderful respite, and the most entertaining thrillers I’ve ever read.

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