Tag Archives: Douglas Preston

Impact, Douglas Preston

Forge, 2009, 364 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1768-1

Now that the Preston/Child writing duo has had time to work on their own novels in addition to their collaborations, we’re getting an opportunity to see what are the strengths and weaknesses of either writer.  Lincoln Child, judging from his solo novels from Utopia to Terminal Freeze, is supremely gifted at making up interesting premises.  Unfortunately, his novels have a tendency to turn into far more pedestrian genre exercises by their middle third, and end on intensely familiar notes to either techno-thriller (“The AI did it!”) or Science Fiction (“Aliens!”) fans.  Meanwhile, Douglas Preston seems a bit more versatile, and in-between The Codex to Blasphemy seems interested in a broader range of narrative structures.  Adventure ranks high in his plotting techniques, and if his premises are a bit less clear-cut than his colleague’s own novels, he seems a bit better at sustaining narrative tension throughout.

Impact is clearly another novel from the Child/Preston stable: It’s easily readable, generously paced with action sequences, mysterious from the get-go and seasoned with a blend of technical details.  It’s also structurally flawed, can’t let go of recurring characters and badly inserts SF ideas within a traditional thriller template.

It starts with the titular impact: In costal Maine, a brilliant young woman wasting her potential as a waitress uses elementary astrophysics and her knowledge of the area to deduce that the rock landed on a nearby isolated island, and that there’s money to be made in bringing back a meteorite.  She sets off with a friend and her father’s boat, but not before annoying a young man persuaded that she’s his girlfriend.  In a completely unrelated development, a scientist working in California gets wind of a surprising scientific discovery involving Mars and people who are willing to kill in order to keep it a secret.  Finally, in yet a third completely unrelated subplot, Preston series regular (and all-rounded special operative) Wyman Ford is asked to go investigate a source of mysterious gems in Cambodia.

Those three threads eventually converge, but not as cleanly as you may expect from a top-notch thriller novelist.  It’s one of Impact’s many flaws that the novel is inelegantly split in two parts spaced by weeks, upsetting the kind of tight dramatic unity that we’d expect from a thriller.  Furthermore, it doesn’t help that one of the three initial subplots is quickly cut short, or that there is not real reason to bring back Wyman Ford after the world-changing events of Blasphemy when just about any competent protagonist could have done the job.

(It’s a pet peeve of mine that the thriller genre is rarely suited to series: to be meaningful, thrillers developments should have consequences.  You can’t threaten the world with nuclear war every novel of the series, for instance, and the high-impact shenanigans at the end of high-stakes thrillers should leave a mark on the characters, and often the world at large.  What bad thriller continuity series does is press the reset button, not even acknowledging that what was important in the previous book is still important now.  Wynan Ford’s previous adventure Blasphemy ended with a global revelation that isn’t even mentioned here.  There’s an even bigger global revelation in Impact, and I’m practically certain that one of Preston’s next novel will once again feature Ford, and once again ignore Impact’s impact.)

While Impact does introduce a sympathetic heroine with Abbey and has the good idea of pairing her up with Ford, the novel seems too loose to be fully satisfying.  The subplots go here and there (Ford’s trip to Cambodia start out promisingly, then peters off in traditional heroics), the book can’t make up its mind whether it’s best suited to the rocky grit of New England or techno-scientific brinksmanship in Washington DC.  The last quarter of the novel features world-changing SF concepts, but Preston shies away from exploring their consequences in favour of well-worn thriller tricks.

It results in a disappointing novel, full of promise but let down by a loose, almost chaotic execution.  Impact has lengthy periods of boredom in-between the interesting ideas, and it always feels as if there’s something not quite right in the way those ideas and concepts are developed.  Science Fiction fans may have a worst time with the books than those who aren’t as used to SF conventions: Like many authors working outside the SF genre, Preston doesn’t quite understand how to develop premises with world-changing potential, and maddeningly focuses on the wrong end of the story in an effort to hold the hands of his general readership.  Even Preston’s usual audience may not feel that this is his best work.

Gideon’s Sword, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2011, 342 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-56432-8

We all know that book reviewers are useless: nobody pays attention to them, they’re wasting their time writing for little artistic or commercial reward and they wouldn’t exist at all if books went away.  Still, it doesn’t mean that they’re always wrong.

When reviewers started muttering that the Preston/Child thrillers featuring Aloysius Pendergast had grown stale and repetitive, they were probably echoing something that Preston/Child themselves knew.  Thriller readers thrive on a moderate amount of novelty, and after ten novels featuring the character (eight of them published yearly between 2002 and 2010), a creatively refreshing break seemed in order.  As it happens, Preston/Child aren’t giving up on Pendergast (an eleventh novel is slated for later in 2011), but they are broadening their horizons a bit, not only through their individual novels, but also through a new series featuring brand-new character Gideon Crew.

Crew exists in the same universe as Pendergast (they’re linked by eccentric billionaire Eli Glinn), but he’s a substantially different protagonist.  Whereas Pendergast is the archetypical wizard, Crew is a trickster: He manipulates people like others hack computers.  Whereas Pendergast will gain entry to a building by showing his FBI pass, deducing something amazing and blustering through, Crew will dress up, impersonate someone else and sneak past security undetected.  There’s probably an interesting crossover event in the future for both characters, but for now Gideon’s Sword is a chance for Preston/Child to focus on a new protagonist.

As with many origin stories, it takes a while for the throat-scratching to end.  A lengthy prologue sets up Crew as a genius with a burning desire to avenge his betrayed father.  Once the vengeance is complete, however, he gets both an offer and a sentence: Eli Glinn has noticed the subtlety of Crew’s vengeance, and wants to hire him as a freelance operator on complex cases.  At the same time, Crew is told that he’s got an incurable medical condition.  One that will likely kill him within a few months… a few years at most.

But there’s little time for Gideon to reflect on his death sentence.  Before long he’s involved in a breathless race around New York City to find out what he can about a mysterious Chinese scientist and the string of numbers he whispered after a car crash.  Taking full advantage of their NYC playground, Preston/Child end up taking a closer look at a lesser-known feature of the city; Hart Island, where unidentified bodies and body parts from all of New York City are buried.  (For some extra adventure, go to the authors’ web site for an unauthorized tour of the area.)

The result is a novel that feels lighter and faster-paced than the last few Preston/Child’s Pendergast novels.  Crew, being younger and unencumbered by Pendergast’s upper-class upbringing, is more impulsive and fallible.  His methods are different, and by renewing their cast of character, the authors also clean up the atmosphere of their book.

It’s not a complete success, though: Gideon’s Sword is designed to be less weighty than the Pendergast novels, and it does feel less substantial.  While the streamlined plot moves faster and prevents Preston/Child from overusing some familiar plotting devices, it also makes Gideon’s Sword feel a bit lightweight compared to their other novels.  Story-wise, there’s a bit of unpleasantness when Crew gets someone else killed by his actions –since the series is to continue (Gideon’s Corpse is scheduled for January 2012), one would expect a bit of remorse to surface.  But when it comes to future installments, one has to wonder about Gideon’s built-in expiration date.  Either he’s slated to die, bringing an unsatisfying end to the series, or Preston/Child will find a rabbit in their bag of tricks to save Gideon from his timely end.  Let’s wait and see which way it will go.

In the meantime, despite a few odd criticisms, Gideon’s Sword does feel like a welcome break from the Pendergast routine.  It’s not entirely a triumph, but it’s not a failure either, and it does provide the kind of entertainment that thriller readers are expecting.  But really; seeing the Preston/Child name on the cover, you don’t need the dubious advice of a book reviewer to tell you so.

The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

Grand Central, 2008, 322 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-58119-6

Douglas Preston is best known as an author of contemporary thrillers.  Either by himself (Tyrannosaur Canyon, Blasphemy) or collaborating with Lincoln Child (the Pendergast series), he has earned a sizable following as one of the most popular fiction writers.  In The Monster of Florence, however, he switches to non-fiction; first, with a historical description of the serial killer known as “The Monster of Florence” (“Between 1974 and 1985, seven couples –fourteen people in all—were murdered…” [P.5]) and then what happened to him when he got too close to the story (“I was accused of being an accessory to murder, planting false evidence, perjury and obstruction of justice, and threatened with arrest if I ever set foot on Italian soil again” [P.5]). It’s the story of a writer as character, and it’s as good as his novels.

The Monster of Florence starts innocently enough in 2000, as Preston contemplates a major lifestyle change: having earned a comfortable living as an author, it’s now possible to him to envision living the life he has always imagined for himself.  Why not move to Italy’s bucolic countryside, not too far from Florence, and research a long-gestating murder mystery novel?

But a chance encounter with a journalist and a mention of his current residence dredges up the sordid story of a serial killer preying on couples.  The first half of the book is a historical account of the crimes.  The second one is far more personal and tells of what happens when a visiting American inadvertently starts making local authorities look bad.  In-between, we get a good look at Florence, a city that has shaped Italy (Florentine upper-class dialect largely defined the Italian language after the unification of the country) and yet, even today, stands apart from the rest of the country due to its self-image as a cradle of fine culture.

But first, the true-crime aspect: Essentially unknown to American audiences, the story of the Monster of Florence spans roughly sixteen years from 1968 to 1985.  During that time, eight couples were murdered in the hills around Florence where they had sought a bit of intimacy.  Three men have been arrested and convicted for those murders, but many still suspect that the real killer has not been caught; among them is Mario Spezi, a Florentine journalist who has covered much of the case for a local newspaper.  When Preston meets Spezi, he is quickly fascinated by the case, and the suggestion that justice has never been served upon the true killer.

That’s when The Monster of Florence takes an unexpected turn: As Preston comes closer to the case and forms a team with Spezi, their investigative efforts start annoying the Florinese police forces, who eventually accuse Spezi and Preston with obstructing justice… and more.

Worth keeping in mind throughout the narrative is Preston’s description of the Italian way of life, fregatura, littered with casual corruption: “doing something in a way that is not exactly legal, no exactly honest, but just this side of egregious.” [P.171]. When you’re a member of the community, fregatura works.  When you’re out, well… bad things happen.  Preston is grilled by the Florinese police forces, then told to get out of the country and stay out.  If you ever want to understand the experience of being intimidated by police authorities while visiting a foreign country, then this is the book for you.  What’s a bit of xenophobic colour compared to permanent exile?  Preston can leave (and does so), but Spezi is in a very different situation, and eventually Preston has to use every bit of influence he has in the media world to try to get his friend out of trouble.

The first half of The Monster of Florence is ordinary: straight-ahead material, well-fleshed but dealing in criminal mysteries without a satisfactory answer.  It’s the second half of the book that raises it above the background din of similar true-crime stories.  We’re used to see thriller writers as bookish personalities in every way detached from what they write about… so it’s a bit of a shock to see a familiar author dragged into the madness of a criminal case, and the way authorities react to his efforts.  Numerous nods to other thriller figures (chief among them Thomas Harris, who was the first to write about the Monster of Florence in Hannibal) make this book of particular interest to genre readers despite its billing as non-fiction.  Ironically, it’s Preston’s personal story rather than Spezi’s descriptions of the murders that may put you off from visiting Florence.  But that’s what you can expect when a stranger-than-fiction story lands upon a novelist: a crackling good book.

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.

Cemetary Dance, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2009, 435 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-58029-8

It’s books like this one that make me fear that one day, “they” will take away my critical license and forbid me from ever posting reviews on the web again.  When I will ask why, they will point to this review and stay silent, because it will stand on its own as the ravings of a terminally jaded reviewer.

So here it is: Cemetary Dance is a dull disappointment that is barely worth the Preston/Child name.  It’s not particularly distinctive, recycles some of Preston/Child’s worst narrative tics and squanders one of its series’ recurring characters.  Once the last page is turned, we’re left without lasting memories, except for the impression of having wasted our time.

It begins, like so many of Preston/Child’s previous collaborations do, with a gruesome murder.  This time, though, the victim is someone near and dear to readers of the series: Journalist Bill Smithback, who has been part of the Preston/Child universe since The Relic, is killed in his own apartment.  (This isn’t a spoiler, as it happens in chapter two and is an integral part of the cover blurb.)  Investigating the case, NYPD detective Vincent D’Agosta and FBI super-agent Aloysius Pendergast are troubled to find out that the murderer was conclusively identified as dead two weeks before.  Their investigation soon reveals mysterious connections with a cult hidden in an estate north of Manhattan.  Zombiis are inevitably involved.

You would think that sacrificing a sympathetic recurring character would serve a greater purpose, but Smithback’s death has narrative meaning only in that the novel raises the possibility of reanimated zombie killers.  In this context, propping up the corpse of a dear old character is more effective than in grabbing a random stranger.  But in terms of narrative payoff, Smithback’s exit isn’t particularly worthwhile: the villains in this book aren’t noteworthy opponents, and when one thinks that Smithback made it through the Diogenes trilogy more or less intact, it seems like a waste of a good opportunity.  At the very least, Preston/Child are good enough to give us two dramatic farewell scenes from Smithback’s friends.

But enough about Smithback, especially when there are bigger issues with the novel.  The most obvious one is the constant suggestion of supernatural mysteries, something that has always been part of the fabric of the Preston/Child universe ever since The Relic, but seldom more so than in the post-Brimstone sequence.  Again, though, the supernatural is unmasked to reveal a particularly tortured set of thriller conventions: By now, we’re so used to that Scooby-doo tricks that it’s hard to be worked up about it: Readers making it through Cemetary Dance will be more exasperated than thrilled in waiting for the inevitable rational explanation.  Those are getting increasingly implausible as novels go by, risking suspension of disbelief at every turn.  There comes a point in convoluted thrillers where supernatural explanations are simpler and more believable than the ludicrous chain of events that Preston/Child now favour.

It also dovetails into a feeling that rather than trying to be original (say, by breaking out something as different as The Ice Limit), Preston/Child are seeking refuge in the familiar playground of New York settings and hackneyed thriller tricks.  By now, Pendergast and friends have been used in so many successive books and plunged in a succession of so many outlandish adventures that we know better than to take the adventures at their initial word: There is always another trick, another hidden Kevlar vest, purloined gun or fake death to rescue the characters.  (Well, except for Smithback who, until further notice, is stone-cold-dead.)  The titles of the latest Preston/Child novels have been largely interchangeable (something-death-something, from The Book of the Dead to The Wheel of Death to Dance of Death), but that only reflects something about their books

All of this to say that it may be time for Preston/Child to either leave Pendergast behind or come up with a major novel in the sequence.  Cemetary Dance is, except for one major death, a minor work in their bibliography, forgettable to an extent that even Constance Green (who ought to be a mom by this time in the sequence) isn’t even to be found in the novel.  It’s a waste of money in hardcover, and barely worth a beach read in paperback.  Preston/Child have and will do better… but just not this time.

Unless I’m so spectacularly jaded that I can’t even appreciate a run-of-the-mill thriller anymore.

The Wheel of Darkness, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Vision, 2008 reprint of 2007 original, 495 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-446-61868-7

Another day means another thrilling adventure for FBI special agent Aloysius Pendergast!  After the triple-punch of the Diogenes trilogy, both Pendergast and his protégée Constance Greene take a break of sorts in a lightweight seafaring adventure.  The result may be a minor Preston/Child novel, but it’s not without a few stronger moments, and it definitely won’t hurt the writing duo’s reputation.

A plot summary almost reads like a parody: “After the events of the previous books, Pendergast and Constance go for a cruise.”  Of course, you then have to add that they board an ocean liner on its maiden voyage so that they can catch a murderous thief that has stolen a dangerous artifact, but where’s the fun in that?  After a hundred pages, though, the cruise beings and Pendergast’s shipboard activities grows to include things like defeating blackjack cheaters in the ship’s casinos, tracking down a serial killer, helping the crew take down an insane mutineer and losing his mind so that he can enjoy some deep-seated misanthropy.

Wait, wait, what’s that about turning crazy?  I’m revealing one of the novel’s better moments here, but don’t worry: By this time in the Pendergast series, seeing him act out of character is a treat in itself.  Crazy Pendergast, affected by said dangerous artefact, rivals his brother for contempt of humanity, and that’s when Constance -who gets a fairly generous role throughout the novel- gets to play foil to the even-more outlandish Pendergast.  His state of mind is restored in a way that will strike some as profound and others as amusing, but definitely show how far Preston/Child are willing to go in hocus-pocus mysticism while still claiming to write realistic novels.  Still; one of the better reasons for reading The Wheel of Darkness is for the portrait of Pendergast turning insaaane.

That’s partly because the rest of the story is mundane stuff.  Sure, Pendergast gets to play James Bond in out-cheating a band of professional blackjack card-counters (their techniques are straight out of Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House).  Of course, we get a look at the way an ocean liner works when it has to cater to a few thousand passengers.  Fine, we have a crazed serial killer eviscerating victims.  But in the context of Preston/Child’s high-adrenaline series, it all becomes routine.

By the time we’re being told that this is the best, biggest, most massive ocean liner in the history of the world, that this is its maiden voyage, that the company will tolerate no delays and that, well, there’s a tiny storm along the way, readers may start laughing to themselves in anticipation.  There are, fortunately, no icebergs.  But everyone can still guess that this is one maiden cruise that will end badly for many passengers.

But that’s the way it goes, one supposes, for the type of formula thrillers that Preston/Child have been writing together for more than a decade.  As a conceit, the “ocean liner” one isn’t bad, and most readers are bound to like it.  It’s just that after the triple-punch of the Diogenes Trilogy, this one feels like a far more sedate novel, one that doesn’t change much in the course of the series.  Even Constance’s big final-chapter revelation just confirms the last line of the previous book (as if there was any doubt of where that was going); readers in a hurry are not going to miss much by skipping over this volume in the series.

But not every volume can be a game-changer, and so The Wheel of Darkness (what’s with Preston/Child’s generic titles, lately?) does manage to fulfill expectations for Preston/Child readers.  The writing is limpid, the three-ring circus of events is efficiently managed, the details of shipboard operations are absorbing and the resolution does take place during a big storm.  What else could we possibly want?  Until the next novel, this one will do.

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!

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.

Brimstone, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Grand Central, 2004 (2005 mass market reprint), 728 pages, C$9.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61275-8

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are among the most reliable writers in the contemporary thriller genre, and they can be counted upon to deliver the thrills that today’s readers demand.  But even they can have their major books and minors ones.  If their previous effort, Still Life with Crows, was a perfunctory thriller in-between more ambitious instalments, its follow-up Brimstone has all the markings of a major new work.  Or, make that the beginning of a major new cycle.

For one thing, it goes back to the New York metropolitan area.  After the corn fields of the Midwest, FBI Agent Pendergast is called to investigate a mysterious death on a Long Island estate.  This time, a wealthy man has seemingly burnt to death from the inside, all signs pointing to nothing less than supernatural intervention.  This being a Preston/Child novel, we can guess that it isn’t so; in fact, the key to this mystery will be pretty obvious to a number of tech-savvy readers.  But the fun of those novels is in the ups and down of the investigation, as it keeps traveling to stranger and stranger places.  By the time Brimstone is over, it even indulges itself in very traditional thrills.

But the other big sign that this is a major Preston/Child novel is in the return of several characters from previous novels.  Here, we don’t just get a featured role for agent Vincent D’Agosta, but secondary roles for journalist Bill Smithback and NYPD Captain Laura Hayward.  It’s a lively cast, but there’s something else at play too: a subplot slowly develops regarding Pendergast’s brother, a criminal mastermind whose plans come to overshadow the investigation that launches the novel.  Sometimes billed as “The first book of the Diogenes Trilogy”, Brimstone launches a new arc in the Pendergast cycle… and we can only guess at the brother-against-brother confrontation that awaits in the next few books.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of material to enjoy.  The early investigation of the devilish-smelling murder lands them into New York high society, meeting other people who seem to have made deals with the devil earlier in their lives.  But murders are contagious in the Preston/Child universe, and so other victims quickly follow.  After seeing Pendergast work solo in the previous book, it’s good that D’Agosta is back to give him a foil: Preston/Child’s best-known protagonist is a joy to follow, but it often takes a more grounded presence to truly highlight how special he can be.  One of the book’s best moments comes when Pendergast takes on a rich and arrogant businessman on his own yacht: among other things, Brimstone shows how much it takes to really upset the normally-unflappable FBI agent.

The novel eventually makes its way to Italy, dodging ancient mythology, cutting-edge technology and recent history along the way.  One subplot further sets up the rest of the Diogenes trilogy by portending imminent doom for New York, even as the thrills rely less and less on high technology the longer our protagonists spend in Europe.  The mixture of contemporary suspense and arcane knowledge is a good chunk of what makes a Preston/Child novel truly distinctive, and it’s amazing to see how a lecture on the essence of a Stradivarius violin eventually makes its way back in the plot.  Preston/Child never miss an opportunity to goose up their plotting with whatever classic thriller elements they can stuff in their story, although they can get too ambitious at times: The way they manage to get rid of a world-class assassin smacks of contrivances, especially when they have to skip over elements of their characters’ chronology in order to fool the reader for a few more pages.  It also goes without saying that any thriller that reaches 700 pages can use some editing, but it’s to Preston/Child’s credit that they rarely overstay their welcome.

By this moment in their career, though, Preston/Child both know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  Brimstone may not be lean nor overly mean, but it is a well-oiled thrill machine with an abundance of chrome.  It probably works a bit better as an introductory volume to a trilogy than it does as a self-contained murder thriller, but it’s a reliable test of their skills that it does both in a relatively successful fashion. After all, there’s little doubt that most readers who pick up Brimstone will race over to the next volume.

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.

Blasphemy, Douglas Preston

Forge, 2007, 415 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1105-4

Here’s the plot: In Nevada, a gifted billionaire-scientist has built a super-collider that will allow him to reach back to the conditions that existed at the beginning of the universe. As the inauguration of the machine is slowed down by technical problems, some religious groups politicize the issue. As delays and controversies heighten, the US government send an investigator to find out what’s going on. Deaths occur, and a full-scale mobilization of religious followers against the scientific project erupts even as the scientists on-site glimpse something unexpected in the first results of their experiments. Something is communicating with them via high-energy physics, something that claims to be of divine origins…

Here’s the spoiler-free review: Douglas Preston’s Blasphemy is a techno-thriller that tackles issues of science and religion, re-using characters from Preston’s previous novel Tyrannosaur Canyon. It’s professionally written, but flawed: it may look daring at times, but it’s really reaching for the hoariest compromise in sight. The conclusion contradicts much of what has gone on until then.

WARNING: Anything else will be a spoiler, so you may want to skip ahead to the next review.

If you’re still with us, a short recapitulation of the place of religious faith in American genre fiction may be necessary: While recent volleys of militant atheism have done much to move the goalposts of any discussion of religious belief in the contemporary United States, most genre fiction tiptoes around such questions as so to accommodate the sensibilities of a sizable minority of believers for whom criticizing the very notion of faith is tantamount to heresy. Most genre discussions of phenomenons that may-or-may-not be manifestations of religious beliefs ultimately resolves to a curious compromise in which nearly everything is explained away as science except for a tiny piece that may-or-may-not be divine intervention. Few authors will claim a clear stake in the does-God-exist debate. There are exceptions, of course (Left Behind on one side, many of Arthur C. Clarke’s novels on the other one), but the pattern is as annoying as it’s universal, from any of the Jesus-cloned thrillers out there (see Glenn Kleier’s The Last Days) onward.

So the tension in reading Blasphemy, at least for jaded readers, is in wondering whether Preston will clearly commit himself, or try another variation on the old “Aw, sucks, all of you can be right if you want” dodge. To Preston’s credit, he does manage to keep things in suspense for a while: the super-collider seems to open up a singularity of supernatural capabilities, up to and including an all-knowing entity communicating with them via a computer link.

But there are a few more twists and turns to the tale, especially when Wyman Ford (returning after Tyrannosaur Canyon) corners the brilliant scientist behind the entire project and manages to make him admit that most of it was completely made up, taking advantage of a few parlor tricks in order to create a new science-based religion. But just as we think that the rug’s been pulled in one direction, there has to be an added “Strange, though, it said a lot of things I never intended.” that sends the novel in comfortable maybe-land. (Yet the epilogue makes it clear that God moves in mysterious ways.)

There’s plenty of other stuff to discuss, such as Preston’s final ham-fisted way of portraying religious believers as bloodthirsty idiots willing to transfer their allegiances to a new religion (by the millions!) in a matter of a few days. Or how the book leaves Wyman Ford in a science-fictional world altered by the events of the novel (but don’t bet against a sequel that ignores it all). Ultimately, though, the title suggests that Preston is really about raising a stink, creating false opposition between science and faith, using the oldest non-compromise in the bag of tricks to provide a pat conclusion to satisfy everyone. It’s nothing new, nothing really unnerving. The novel tries to have it both ways, in the time-honored tradition of the hardcover popular bestseller. For all of its other faults, at least it’s a fast and easy read.

Jennie, Douglas Preston

Tor, 1994 (1997 reprint), 312 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-56533-9

This is definitely not the first novel you would expect from Douglas Preston. Now firmly established as a thriller writer (usually, but not always collaborating with Lincoln Child on yarns such as The Relic, The Ice Limit or The Cabinet of Curiosities), Preston can command a sizable audience and a regular spot on the bestseller lists: his readers can rely on his name for slick thrills and mass-market entertainment.

But his first novel, published one year before the runaway success of The Relic, proves to be a very different book. Though it’s concerned about death, it’s hardly a thriller. Its form and execution is very different from the rest of Preston’s work.

Taking the form of an oral history, Jennie starts by putting its readers in a frame of reference that may or may not be our real world. Though careful pseudo-historical references and self-insertion in the story as the researcher pulling together the accounts of several witnesses, Preston manages to create a reasonable doubt that the story he’s about to tell is historical truth.

It begins in 1965, as an anthropologist goes to Africa and brings back a chimpanzee, the titular Jennie. Thanks to the circumstances of Jennie’s birth, the anthropologist decides to raise her as a member of his own family, applying his theories about primate intelligence to an authentic subject. As the book advances, we follow the family’s efforts in dealing with Jennie’s maturation, and the effects she has on the people surrounding her. People may not forget that Jennie isn’t completely human, but what if Jennie herself doesn’t realize it?

The real intent of the novel, of course, is to tug at readers’ hearts and make them feel that the differences between animals and humans are far thinner than they can expect. You can probably fill in the blanks of the plot yourself, especially if you’re familiar some of the more sentimentalist fiction about primates. Yes, Jennie proves to be just as smart as her human siblings. Yes, some humans act in a cruel and despicable fashion. Yes, the tale ends on a very somber note. Few will be surprised to find that the Author’s Note at the end of the book has pages of contact coordinates for organizations dedicated to the protection of primates. I suppose that some readers will either find the “provocative questions about our relationship to, and treatment of, other species” (thanks, Library Journal) either trite or self-evident, depending on their own preexisting prejudices. Some of the story beats are repetitive or contrived (it’s a handy thing to have a minister as a neighbour when you want to discuss matters of death and faith), especially given how the tale progresses toward its inevitable ending.

But if I’m less than enthusiastic about the novel’s overall dramatic arc, there’s no use denying that it’s effective, in large part due to the way it’s told. The fictional “oral history” of Jennie’s life allows Preston some room for literary games and showy prose. The characters of the story don’t speak the same way or reflect upon the events in quite the same manner. There’s a fun sense of triangulation in trying to piece together the “real” story from the different viewpoints of characters who can’t stand each other. Dr. Pamela Prentiss, the driven behaviourist who comes to act as a foil for the rest of the characters, is a particularly entertaining character to follow.

While Jennie is based on numerous case studies (and, in a sense, could be viewed as a romanticized compendium of such experiments), it helps a lot that a certain “Douglas Preston” is, from the beginning “Note to the reader”, a character in his own book: a writer who tries to interview as many people as possible about Jennie, making significant efforts to track down and meet his subjects and (eventually) occasionally being shut off from any further contact. (“Turn that goddamn tape recorder off. I mean it. Now.” [P.290]) The sense of two stories mixing together is very satisfying, and adds another level of interest in the book.

I may not personally understand the fascination with primates, but the book will find a natural audience with those who love stories featuring chimpanzees. And yet, while I’m obviously no fan of sappy “Aren’t those animals just like us humans? Aren’t us humans just like animal?” stories, Jennie still manages be a gripping read with a conclusion that is far more affecting that I would have thought from a description of the book alone. In that particular respect, at least, Jennie exhibits the qualities that would late make of Preston a best-selling authors. While Jennie is very different from his best-known thrillers, it’s more than worth a look for fans of good popular fiction: even if you know where it’s going, it’s a memorable ride.

The Codex, Douglas Preston

Tor, 2004, 404 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34629-X

Over the years, Douglas Preston has established himself as one-half of the Preston/Child team behind such preposterously entertaining thrillers as Relic, The Ice Limit or The Cabinet of Curiosities. But he also has a number of solo works on his shelves, The Codex being the latest of them.

Fans of the Preston/Child thrillers will certainly feel right at ease as soon as the premise of the novel is explained. From the moment the three mismatched Broadbent brothers are summoned to their rich father’s side for a mysterious meeting, our interest is sparked: why is said father missing, his house empty of its treasure trove of valuables? It takes only one videotape to clear up the mystery and start the adventure: As a team-building exercise, their dying father has squirrelled away most of his fortune and hidden it somewhere in the world, in what will either become their inheritance or his tomb. Their only chance to retrieve the vast family fortune is to unite their forces and go treasure-hunting.

A more straightforward thriller would see the three brothers shake hands on the deal and set off for primitive countries. But such a thriller would last about fifty pages and please no one. So the brothers all decide to forget about it and return to their lives. But the idea stays on, and it doesn’t take much time for all three brothers to either initiate the chase or be manipulated into following their father’s trace. They won’t go alone, of course, and it’s their companions that will determine their chance of success. From that moment, it’s the good, the bad and the clueless: Tom is the no-nonsense veterinarian reluctantly pressed into service by a young woman and the promise of invaluable medicinal information, the “codex” of the title. Philip is a haughty academic who soon finds himself way over his head as the quasi-prisoner of the private investigator he hired to help things along. Meanwhile, placid third brother Vernon bumbles from one adventure to another as his guru seems unusually concerned about the One Hundred Million Dollars! at the end of the chase. The three brothers separately set out to get the treasure, but they may not be alone in their quest…

The cover blurb on the cover of the paperback edition bills the novel as “Raiders of the Lost Ark meets The Amazing Race!” and indeed, the novel is never as gripping as when the initial pieces are placed on the table, and we are promised a vast chase across the jungle as different teams all race toward the treasure. It’s a fabulous hook for a thriller, and for a while it looks as if The Codex is destined for great things.

What follows is not exactly a disappointment, but it’s not quite up to the initial expectations. As all adventurers make their way deeper in the jungle, the usual adventure thrills are all here to be found: natural dangers, isolated tribes, character infighting and so on. Making everything a bit better are a few surprises to shake things up, and a number of amusing supporting characters. But the teams soon converge and end up with the classical good-versus-evil face-off, with too much book left to string along. The last act really stretches things a bit past the point of comfortable disbelief, creating a nagging sense of let-down.

It doesn’t help that some subplots never achieve liftoff. A lengthy stateside digression involving a CEO is notable for an atypical ending, but it seems superfluous in the context of this novel. Worse: its interaction with another subplot where a troublesome love interest is morally dismissed smacks of cheap plotting.

Nevertheless, The Codex is still a lot of fun, especially if it’s been a while since your last jungle-bound adventure. As for myself, I ended up reading it in unfortunate proximity with James Rollin’s earlier Amazonia (which sports a Douglas Preston blurb on its jacket, interestingly enough) and that may just be too many jungle thrillers to handle in the same fortnight.

Taken on its own, though, The Codex is a serviceable thriller: exactly the kind of page-turner that’s a delight to read on the bus or on the beach. Its easy fluency with genre elements augurs well for Preston’s solo career. Indeed, back-cover indications show that Tom Broadbent makes a return appearance in Tyrannosaur Canyon. We’ll see about that.

[June 2006: What about James Rollin’s Amazonia, you ask? Well, here’s the paradox: Even if Rollin’s curiously similar book (down to paternal matters) has a grander scope and a better pacing, it’s not quite so much fun to read as The Codex. Rollin’s characters are a bit flatter, and if his ideas are generally more wild and interesting than Preston’s, he is seldom as slick as his colleague in delivering the expected adventure. On the other hand, Amazonia is one of Rollin’s top books so far, proving that he’s getting better with time.]

The Cabinet of Curiosities, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 2002, 466 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-53022-0

At first glance, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s The Cabinet of Curiosities seems to be breaking new ground for the authors: The dust jacket promises a mystery in which a contemporary serial killer uses the deadly signature of a long-dead historical murderer. But don’t be mislead; in most ways, this is yet another rather good Preston/Child thriller, with their typical flaws and strengths.

Even though there’s a great deal of emphasis on historical New York, this isn’t even remotely similar to Caleb Carr’s historical mysteries: For one thing, the action is set strictly in the present. For another, The Cabinet of Curiosity is a clear descendant of the authors’ previous thrillers. The protagonists are characters from previous novels: Archaeologist Nora Kelly and journalist Bill Smithback, fresh from Thunderhead and still dating after her move to New York. Then there’s Special Agent Pendergast, in a follow-up performance after Relic and Reliquary. And there is no doubt that The Cabinet of Curiosities is his novel: Even before the novel gets underway, Pendergast is introduced with an appropriate amount of panache: while the two other novels gave a hint of his personality, this is the first one to truly explore the dimensions of his character, a modern-day Sherlock Holmes with quasi-supernatural mental tricks up his sleeve and a fabulous lifestyle that, yes, is somewhat explained in the course of the novel. While Nora and Bill are not uninteresting (Smithback’s mistakes are constantly infuriating), they pale in comparison to Pendergast.

But this is a genre novel with the firm intention to thrill, and so it’s no surprise if Pendergast himself pales in comparison to the plot and atmosphere. Like with Relic and its sequel, the action initially revolves around the New York Museum of Natural History, a fantastic neo-gothic establishment dropped straight in the middle of New York City. Something evil still lurks within the labyrinth of the Museum, if not in New York City itself.

Almost all Preston-Child novels so far have included elements of archaeology, and this one is no exception. Like with Reliquary, New York City is revealed as a treasure-trove of secrets hidden under ordinary apartment, on dusty archive files or in abandoned mansions. The historical mystery aspect of The Cabinet of Curiosity is one of the book’s chief delights and an engine for some powerful scenes, including one in which a basement apartment in Chinatown ends up being an ideal starting point for an archaeological dig. Indeed, fans of edutainment will probably learn a lot about how those charming “cabinet of curiosities” of the nineteenth century eventually became the starting point for our modern museums.

Just be sure to set aside enough time to read this novel; like the author’s other works, but perhaps even more so than their previous books, The Cabinet of Curiosities is a ferociously slick page-turner. It’s hard to slow down, let alone stop reading. Characterization is part of the book’s appeal and so is the carnival of fascinating details, but the clarity of the prose itself is impeccable. Coupled with good pacing, it goes straight to the core of the story and doesn’t let go. Its unfortunate that the drawn-out climax leads to a conclusion that smack too much of deus ex machina, and that some early coincidences are never convincingly explained. Not that it’ll slow down anyone.

It’s become a staple of Preston-Child novels (in the tradition of most techno-thrillers) to punish any intellectual ambition and cork genies back into their bottles. So it’s no surprise to see the triumphant ending of The Cabinet of Curiosities sport some variant of the usual “there are things that humankind should know” crap. (Yes, a lot like Riptide and The Ice Limit; too much knowledge is seen as an evil thing) This, coupled with what seems to be a growing tendency to recycle their cast of characters, certainly makes me worry about their long-term plans. If they’re not willing to gamble their entire universe at the end of the novel, why care? Wouldn’t it be a lot more interesting for the genie to escape from the bottle? Oh well; I guess that’s why they invented real Science Fiction: To go where timid thriller writers fear to go…

But if Preston-Child’s next efforts are as interesting as The Cabinet of Curiosities, there isn’t much to worry about; their narrative abilities are getting better even as their prose is leaner and cleaner. Save from some late-book problems, there’s not a lot to dislike here: Perfect entertainment!

Thunderhead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 1999, 533 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60837-8

By now, every serious beach reader should be familiar with Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s shtick. As “commercial” writers whose objective is simply to make a living writing bestsellers, their modus operandis is clear after half a dozen such works… and Thunderhead is in no way a departure. Most of their usual elements are somewhere to be found in here.

It starts with a family trauma and a dash of archaeology. Plucky heroine Nora Kelly is a gifted but unfocused archaeologist, following in the footsteps of an absent father who disappeared sixteen years previously on a quest to find Quivira, the lost city of the Anasazi in south-western Utah. Suddenly, a letter from her father lands in her mailbox, a mystery that may reveals the location of the lost city and the fate of her father.

In fairly short order, she uses space-age techniques to track down a promising path and convinces a rich backer to finance her expedition. A few pages later, she’s headed in the wild with a group of explorers whose personalities will form a lot -but not most- of the book’s suspense. Also tagging along is Bill Smithback, the journalist protagonist of Preston and Child’s previous The Relic and Reliquary.

In many ways, Thunderhead is a pleasant throwback/update to the type of lost-civilisation adventure novel that was so popular when our planet wasn’t so civilized. With satellite imaging, all-terrain trucks and computer analysis techniques, lost civilisations have disappeared faster than a new suburb can take over another farm. But in this novel, we’re back on the hunt in narrow canyons, tracking a city that may or may not contain tons of gold.

But who says gold or even “new discoveries” in a Preston and Child novel inevitably implies an excruciatingly painful death for the discoverers (Hey, they’re just borrowing from Crichton: “thou shall not want wealth or forbidden knowledge, especially if thou love high technology.”) Pretty soon -what do you know- the members of the small expedition start dropping dead in a way that may or may not be a supernatural fashion.

Well, okay, it’s not supernatural, but with the usual wildebeests running around and slaughtering the protagonists, you wouldn’t expect anything else. In any case, the innocents are butchered, the evil characters soon exhibit psychotic tendencies and some protagonists may -or may not- find the loot, explain the mysteries and escape with their lives.

Fans of lightly-didactic escapist reading will have a lot of fun reading about the lost-lost Anasazi, the archaeological mystery of their disappearance, the techniques used in modern archaeology and how the space shuttle can help find forgotten trails. Child and Preston, like many if not most of their bestselling colleagues, understand the importance of research and little bundles of fun facts to keep their readers happy.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot to be happy about in Thunderhead. It’s not terribly new, fresh or subtle, but it just works. Despite my sarcastic attitude, I had no problem reading through Thunderhead in fairly short order. The book doesn’t quite have a perfect rhythm (some parts do drag, especially when it comes to Nora’s brother subplot) but it works more often than it doesn’t, and that’s the most important thing when it comes to escapist summer reading.

Fans of the authors’ previous books will find plenty of the same here. There are plenty of thrills—natural, artificial or human. The conclusion seems hopelessly copied from one too many Hollywood thrillers (note to bestselling authors; stop assuming that all your novels will be optioned). Even as far as best-selling writers go, Preston and Child still manage to be reasonably original: Every book changes venue and is reasonably distinct from one another. (It would be time to ditch the “ultimate rainstorm” plot point, though; after four books, it’s getting old.) Still, readers should know the drill by now; their name is a stamp of equal quality, whatever the book you’re picking from them.