Dance of Death, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner Books, 2005 (2006 mass-market reprint), 560 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61709-1

This one is for the fans.

Readers completely new to the Preston/Child novels should enjoy this latest magisterial demonstration of why they reign as the most popular team in contemporary thrillers, but it’s really the fans who have read all nine of their previous collaborations that will enjoy Dance of Death to its fullest extent.  It bring together elements of nearly everything in their shared bibliography, exploits existing relationships, puts recurring characters through tough situations, upsets a few familiar truths and delivers extra payoffs for readers with long memories.

It is, after all, the second volume in the “Diogenes Trilogy”.  But unlike its predecessor Brimstone, the duel between FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and his brother Diogenes is not a subplot: it takes center-stage, and Diogenes is a featured character as plan for a “perfect crime” unfolds in and around New York.  Aloysius, predictably, has survived the sombre conclusion of Brimstone, but people around him may not fare as well as Dance of Death begins and a number of his acquaintances are killed.  Could Diogenes’ plan have as an ultimate victim his own brother?  How could it not?

Those acquaintances include practically everyone in the Preston/Child universe, and so Dance of Death feels like an extended reunion with walk-in roles for nearly everyone ever featured in their previous nine novels.  Some of those appearances aren’t much more than one-scene mentions; others have a far greater role to play in the story.  Fans of The Ice Limit, in particular, will get not only a cute meta-fictional wink (as characters see a copy of Ice Limit III: Return To Cape Horn), but a pair of spellbinding chapters in which thought-to-be-dead Eli Glinn goes head-to-head with agent Pendergast.  Readers will even decode a sequel of sorts to The Ice Limit from the various clues left in plain view by Preston/Child.

Other links cleverly exploit various characters’ particular talents and skills: NYPD Laura Hayward is a dogged investigator looking into Pendergast’s role in the murders, while her boyfriend Vincent D’Agosta makes a perfect brawny companion to the cerebral FBI agent.  Even elements of the plotting seem to echo previous Preston/Child collaborations, as yet another big exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History goes spectacularly awry; it goes without saying that both curators Nora Kelly and Margo Green are involved in some way –one of them more dramatically than the other.

In sheer thrills, it’s always amazing to see Preston/Child manage to re-use old classic elements and wrap them into something new.  Jaded thriller readers won’t help but smile at the accumulation of well-worn plot devices crammed in the novel: Sane people wrongfully committed; diamond thievery (twice!); characters framed for murder; love interest held hostage… there’s even a pair of thrilling car chases to keep things rolling along.

But the real thrill of Dance of Death is in seeing a duel of masterminds.  Agent Pendergast has always been a ridiculously overpowered protagonist, and novels such as Still Life with Crows only proved how tricky it was to match him with a challenging opponent.  Now it looks as if The Diogenes Trilogy is designed to provide a fair adversary for Pendergast.

The novel ends on a note that will send fans rushing to get the third volume: Dance of Death keeps going about thirty pages longer than it could, building up a sense of anticipation that another phase of the story is starting… and that it’s interrupting itself just when it’s getting good.

As usual, it’s this combination of familiar characters, solid thrills, catchy prose and overall forward rhythm that continues to mesmerize Preston/Child readers.  Dance of Death does not transcend the contemporary thriller genre, but it fully exploits that storytelling mode and provides the entertainment that genre fiction should reliably provide.  The Diogenes trilogy concludes in The Book of the Dead, and only the strongest-willed readers won’t drop everything in order to see what happens next.

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