Still Life With Crows, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2003 (2004 paperback reprint), 564 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61276-6

Whenever the prosecution will put together its case for my terminal jadedness in matters of reviewing, I expect that this review will be high on the list. Because here I am, praising a thriller for its setting and dismissing it for its thrills.

On the other hand, who can argue against the idea that there are only so many thriller plots to use? A serial killer with quasi-supernatural methods isn’t just a well-worn plot driver, it’s arguably the same formula that allowed Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child to hit it big with their debut novel The Relic: mysterious murders in an unusual location reveal a killer that’s half-man, half-creature.

While Still Life With Crows may abandon Preston/Child’s usual urban haunts for the American Midwest, it’s pretty much the same story: The book opens on the discovery of a body in a corn field. (A gruesome discovery, of course) The murder appears to have ritual overtones, which quickly attracts agent Pendergast, now more fully defined than ever after the events of The Cabinet of Curiosities gave him a starring role.

The first 150 pages of Still Life With Crows are certainly the book’s best, if only for seeing dapper Pendergast stuck in the strange new environment of a tiny American town. This is American Gothic in more ways than one as Pendergast’s ideas about gastronomy and correct police procedures often run at odds with the local way of doing things. No matter; Pendergast quickly befriends the local goth, gets emergency cooking supplies delivered to his temporary headquarters and makes progress when the police forces seem unable to go further.

It follows that the small town of Medicine Creek, Kansas is a hotbed of potential drama: Beyond the usual small-town rivalries, we understand that the existence of the community depends on a major poultry processing plant and the promise of a major corn research projects. Ancient Indian lore eventually make their way in the plot, along with a seemingly-useless visit to a cave system managed by Pendergast’s landlord. Some of those elements are nothing more than artful diversions; others end up being part of the solution.

But the answers, when they come, end up deflating the entire novel, leaving us with nothing more than an overcooking killer that wouldn’t exist anywhere but in a thriller novel. The clever sense-of-place carefully built in the first act of the novel ends up taking a back seat to the usual running-in-the-dark hijinks. At 564 pages, Still Life With Crows is far too long for its own good, and most of this lengths, absurdly enough, comes toward the end of the novel even as the pacing should accelerate.

This isn’t as much of a problem as you may suspect: For their meanderings and tendency to recycle plot premises, the Lincoln/Child duo hasn’t become the most popular team in the business by skimping on readable prose and interesting characters. Agent Pendergast remains one of the most compelling protagonists in modern thriller fiction, and there are enough small details here and there to keep our interest. (For instance, there’s a cute little wink at their previous The Ice Limit via a character reading a paperback thriller called Beyond the Ice Limit).

It’s still a shame, though, that the vast corn fields of Kansas so impressively portrayed in the first half of the book had to cede the spotlight to yet another confined space. The interest of Still Life With Crows lies chiefly in how it manages to wring thrills out of an environment that many would consider terminally dull. But there’s such a thing as overdoing it, and the last few chapters of the novel could have easily been swapped with the end of The Relic.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just terminally jaded. I’ll let the jury decide.

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