The Wheel of Darkness, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

<em class="BookTitle">The Wheel of Darkness</em>, 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.

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