Relic, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Tor, 1995, 474 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54326-2

Thriller fans, rejoice.

You want a scary concept? Imagine a creature, snatched deep from the unexplored Amazonian jungles and brought to New York City. A perfect predator, with the intelligence of a human and the robustness and reflexes of a large reptile. It kills. It eat parts of the victim’s brain. It can’t be shot, it can’t be found…

You want a scary setting? Imagine the New York Museum of Natural History. Halls and rooms and corridors filled with bones and statue and skulls… Abandoned basements left unexplored for decades… Rooms where bugs lovingly eat the flesh of dead animals so their bones can be easily cleaned… An opening exhibition on the subject of Superstition.

You want characters? Imagine Margo Green, young museum researcher. Imagine Dr. Frock, an old wheelchair-bound iconoclast. Imagine Lt. Pendergast, a police lieutenant with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and the street smarts of the best noir detectives. Imagine Bill Smithback, a young journalist with dreams of glory, but a book project hampered by the Museum’s management. Imagine ambitious researchers, overbearing police officers, a control-freak public relation officer, a New York City mayor and a host of other characters.

You want an unlikely succession of events? Imagine that days before the opening of the major exhibition on Superstition, bodies of visitors are found in the museum, horribly mutilated. On the night of the glitzy opening, the killings continue… but everyone’s trapped and the classical storm is raging outside the building.

Given all these elements, it’s no surprise to see that Relic is a pretty enjoyable thriller. The events happen in much the same way that you’d expect them to, with the gradual unveiling of a terrible threat and the impossibly complicated final setup. There are pretty neat final revelations at the end of the narrative. It’s fairly well constructed, doesn’t loses time with needless maudlin romance and lets us wander down the hall of a fascinating place. The style is also at the standard thriller level, which means that clarity takes precedence and that you’ll be able to breeze through Relic‘s fat 450+ pages in almost no time.

It’s interesting to note, however, that this reviewer has a slightly disappointed opinion of the final result. Despite valiant efforts, Child and Preston don’t seem to make the extra step that would transform Relic from a pretty good thriller to a truly stupendous one.

Maybe the fault lies with the characters, who for some reason come along as adequate, but not overly sympathetic. As it is often the case with this kind of book, the world is divided between villains and heroes, and the distinction is pretty clear-cut. Bad things usually happen to bad guys, and the heroes all survive to party another day.

Part of the fault might also lies with the science, which sounds plausible but is still unconvincing. Okay, so there are polysyllabic words, but when you strip them away, you still get a Star Trek: Voyager-type situation. It’s interesting, but not very persuasive. (Not having seen the much-ridiculed movie version of Relic, this reviewer suspects -but cannot prove- that this is what happened in the paper-to-screen translation.)

But the biggest flaw seems to be the level of improbability of the story-line, which places most of New York’s elite in the grips of the monster with glee but not with a lot of justification. And though it might be nonsense to say so, the book seems to lag a bit in the second third.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t grab Relic the next time you’re in the mood for this type of reading. It’s the classical Beach Reading book that sells copies because it more than satisfies the reader’s expectation.

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