Fever Dream, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2010, 405 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-55496-1

The very last page of Fever Dream’s hardcover edition is an important announcement from the authors (now listed without first names on the cover) telling us that they are about to launch a new series of thrillers.  That announcement couldn’t have come at a better time, since anyone who makes it to the end of their latest novel will understand the creative fatigue plaguing the Agent Pendergast series.

Fever Dream isn’t a bad piece of work as far as summer thrillers go… but it’s certainly generic enough to make anyone wonder what happened to the creative team that hopped so brilliantly from one set of character to another in their first few novels.  Now that they have spent seven successive novels writing about Pendergast, everything is starting to feel like routine.

Granted, Fever Dream is a bit better than their previous Cemetary Dance: They don’t kill off a major character, they avoid much of the pseudo-supernatural hocus-pocus of their last few books and even advance one or two overarching subplots along the way.  By digging into Pendergast’s history, and in particular the events surrounding his wife’s death twelve years earlier, we also get a chance to understand what makes his character tic while he stomps around his regular haunts.  Leaving behind New York for the bayou, the normally-cool agent is also quite a bit more emotional this time around… in his own fashion: the point is not just to find who killed his wife, but to avenge her as well.

Much of the plot, unsurprisingly enough for a Preston/Child thriller, is an investigation trying to piece together a decade-old mystery.  From smoking guns to hidden art caches, redneck confrontations and southern mansions contaminated by madness, Fever Dream even manages a few thrills along the way.  An unexpected plot development midway through the book even forces NYPD agent Laura Hayward to team up with Pendergast despite having little personal liking for the man.  There’s a touch of The Cabinet of Curiosity’s urban archaeology in seeing Pendergast deduce the existence of a hidden crypt under a Louisiana doughnut shop, while an ugly scene between Hayward and rednecks late in the book leads to a supremely satisfying revenge by the normally-imperturbable Pendergast.  While his long-dead wife was scarcely even mentioned in the previous novels in the series, she here has a faint presence that does nothing more than reinforce Pendergast’s mystique.  Elsewhere in that fictional universe, Constance Greene also gets a small part in one of the book’s subplots: Depending on its follow-up, it’s either a disappointing resolution to a promising story thread or a set-up for something even more intriguing.

Combine those particular traits with Preston/Child’s usual clean prose, high-tech/historical plot drivers, limpid scene construction and ongoing plot threads and you have the makings of a capable thriller, if not much more: Despite improving on the previous two novels, Fever Dream is still just another minor entry in the Pendergast series, and one that can’t even be bothered to wrap up its plot threads: while the story reaches a natural stopping point, there are at least two unanswered questions leading into the next book of the series…  almost as if readers couldn’t be trusted to come back to Pendergast once Preston/Child’s new “Gideon Crew” series is launched.  Fortunately, reading the industry trades tells us that the February 2011 publication of the first Gideon Crew novel will be followed in the spring/summer by another Pendergast novel.  As a signal that the Pendergast novels aren’t anything special any more, this one is hard to miss.  Hopefully, the break will help the two authors find another creative outlet and keep Pendergast employed doing what he does best.  If that means he can take an extended break while Preston/Child go about working on other projects, then that may be for the best.

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