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!

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