The Book of the Dead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Vision, 2007 mass-market reprint of 2006 original, 619 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-446-61850-2

After matching wits with his evil-mastermind brother in Brimstone and Dance of Death, Aloysius Pendergast once again has to rise to the occasion in The Book of the Dead, final tome in the so-called “Diogenes” trilogy.  Circumstances looks promisingly hopeless at the start of the book: Pendergast is locked up in a maximum-security prison for murders his brother has meticulously blamed on him, while Diogenes is running free, planning his next horrific crime, interfering with activities of a non-profit institution and seducing Pendergast’s ward.  (He’s probably drinking from the milk carton as well, but Preston & Child have bigger crimes to describe.)

Fans of Preston & Child’s work will be unsurprised and amused to find out that as The Book of the Dead begins, the much-abused New York Natural History Museum is once again trying to restore its tattered reputation by… staging the exhibition of a cursed Egyptian tomb deep in its basement.  That a mysterious benefactor seems eager to finance this exhibit and only this exhibit alone doesn’t seem to trouble them.  After all, it’s a foolproof plan: What has ever gone wrong with this museum’s special exhibits so far?

The stage being set for a massive bloodbath, Preston & Child now return to Pendergast and his friends as they try to conceive of a plan good enough to rescue the FBI agent out of a high-security prison, even despite the constant interference of another FBI agent with a huge grudge against the series’ protagonist.  Elli Gunn’s EES is involved, as is a temporarily-suspended Vincent D’Agosta.  The rest of the series’ extended cast of characters pretty much all make an appearance at one point or another, making this volume seems even more familiar.

And, like clockwork, the expected happens: Pendergast escapes, Diogenes’ plan is revealed, there’s big trouble at the Museum, and the Diogenes issue is settled.  Seen from a high altitude, The Book of the Dead is a bit dull and empty, especially compared to its immediate predecessor.  The museum-exposition crutch seems overly familiar, and the plot seems to unfold in a linear fashion.  It’s far too long at 619 pages: While the pleasure of reading the book remains constant, there are times where it doesn’t advance quickly enough, especially during the extended conclusion that drags out over 75 pages and at least one continent too far. (A change of scenery that seems increasingly forced given Preston & Child’s Italian obsession throughout the entire Diogenes trilogy.  Look, we know you vacation there often, okay?)

The Book of the Dead (as generic a title as Preston & Child’s last few novels) also fails to impress as the third volume of a trilogy.  While Brimstone promised an apocalyptic fate for New York (if not the whole world), this seems to have been forgotten along the way.  The three books all lead from one to the other, but they fail to cohere in a satisfying whole.  Diogenes may or may not be gone (despite evidence to the contrary, never say never until the corpse has been double-tapped, beheaded, vaporized and even then watch out for the ghost) and it’s about time for Pendergast to go against someone else, but this concluding volume of the trilogy has an air of underachievement about it.

But where Preston & Child continue to excel is in the construction of small thrilling sequences.  Even if The Book of the Dead is a lesser novel than Dance of Death, it’s got about as many good sequences and set-pieces: The revelation of what Diogenes did with the diamonds he stole in the previous book is inspired, as are the scenes following how Pendergast adapts to prison life.  The Book of the Dead, especially during its latter half, often indulges in pure melodramatic cheese when it goes deep into the Pendergast family secrets: The conclusion is partly driven by the old “scorned woman” plot device, and the final line goes back to over-the-top gothic twists.  Consider the next book nicely set up.

It goes without saying that The Book of the Dead isn’t particularly accessible to newcomers (too many recurring characters acting out too many ongoing plot threads) but won’t lose any existing Preston & Child fans on their way to the next book.  Despite a few problems stemming primarily from the expectations left by Dance of Death, it’s still an A-list contemporary thriller showing why Preston & Child are the acknowledged master of that market segment.  On to Wheel of Death!

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