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.