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.