The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack




Still Life with Crows by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

This is the novel that introduced Corrie—one of the two heroines of Old Bones. A murder on the outskirts of a very small Kansas farm community attracts the unofficial attention of Agent Pendergast. The murderer has conducted a bizarre ritual including a bunch of dead crows around the first victim and including legitimate nineteenth century Native American artifacts in the crime scene. Pendergast, unsurprisingly, seems to be the only person with a clue as to what is really happening. Most everyone else wants to pretend that someone passing through the area committed the bizarre crime. But more murders happen and the bad publicity threatens the small town’s chances of being picked as the site of a genetically-enhanced corn experiment that could turn the economy around.

This book has all the elements I loved from Relic, Reliquary, and the Cabinet of Curiosities. Pendergast is a great and mysterious hero, oddly pursuing the crime in his own fashion and unconcerned by the reactions of those around him. This one adds the interesting figure of Corrie, a rebellious teenager with no prospects. Pendergast takes her under his wing because she knows everyone in the area, but it was never far from my mind that she was going to grow into the young FBI agent in Old Bones.

As the book goes on and evidence begins to accumulate, I was reminded that Preston and Child are capable of delving into science fiction to create their bad guys. I won’t say whether they actually do that this time, but I did like the way they explained their threat and will be long haunted by the explanation of why the bad guy is committing murders.

This is another good one by two masters of the field.

The Pendergast Series

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Relic is the book that introduced Agent Pendergast to millions of readers. I read the book when it first came out and on the strength of that experience, I have read probably a dozen more of Preston and Child’s books since then. My memories of the book were always good and I decided to go back and see how the reality stood up to my recollections. I was happy to discover that the reality was even better than I remembered it to be.

The novel starts out in the Amazon where a scientific expedition has just gone badly awry. It has split up just as one of the scientists is convinced that critical discoveries are being made. He believes he has discovered a tribe thought to be extinct and discovered a critical relic of their religious beliefs—a strangely horrific idol. In addition, one of his two remaining companions has disappeared and he decides to send his third companion back to civilization with their discoveries and his notes while he searches for the lost man. We stay with him long enough for him to meet his end.

The novel then follows the crate of discoveries to a warehouse in South America where something kills a man in a rather frightening scene. We then move to NYC and the Museum of Natural History where more murders follow, the police become involved, and FBI Agent Pendergast makes his appearance. The first third of the story is all about establishing that a killer is lose in the area of the museum, quite possibly even living in the unmapped subterranean tunnels beneath the six-block edifice. It’s very well done. The museum leadership only cares about their multi-million-dollar exhibit that is about to occur and they are doing everything they can to frustrate the investigation out of fear that it will generate bad publicity.

The second third takes the novel in a horror or science fiction direction as evidence begins to pile up that the murderer may not be human. This is really well done and continues to flesh out the cast. We have a grad student, her wheelchair bound professor, a curator in charge of the exhibit, a journalist working on a book on the exhibit, a bunch of side characters whom one suspects might be wearing red shirts, and finally, the easy to hate museum leadership. As more information is uncovered despite the active efforts of the museum leadership, a very dark and scary picture begins to develop that suggests that the opening night of the exhibit will have more in common with ringing the dinner bell for a monster than creating a high society social event.

Finally, in the third section, everything goes to hell as our heroes’ fears prove very correct and disaster strikes the exhibit. All of that groundwork pays dividends here in a very fast paced ending in which death and mayhem are everywhere and you’re really not certain who will live or die. But that’s still not the best part of the novel. That comes in the very last chapter where an alternate, even more horrific explanation of the museum beast is put forth, and that, quite happily, sets up a sequel which I am very anxious to read.

Reliquary by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The sequel to Relic starts with a very tense scene in which two decaying skeletons are accidentally discovered in some of the filthiest water in New York City. One of the skeletons is that of a mega-rich socialite. The other is the key to unravelling Preston and Child’s second Pendergast mystery. Like the first book, this one is quite the ride mixing science, mystery, and over-the-top thrills to create a worthy sequel to their phenomenal first book.

Most of the surviving cast of the first novel returns for the sequel including the reporter—riding high after his bestselling book about the museum murders of the original novel—two of the scientists—wheelchair-bound Frock and new PhD Margo Green—police Lieutenant D’Acosta and of course, Pendergast. Once again, they are dragged into the mystery and forced to fight a politicized bureaucracy which is far less interested in solving the mystery than it is in making the problem of multiple murders in Manhattan go away. Of course, part of their disinterest comes from the fact that the vast majority of the victims are homeless men and women living in the hundreds of miles of tunnels beneath New York City.

Those tunnels are really what makes this book so interesting. Preston and Child put a lot of effort into developing the reality of an undercity in the mind of the readers and it pays off tremendously as a significant portion of the book is spent in either near or total darkness in these unmapped areas of Manhattan. It’s also where the creatures reminiscent of the museum monster of the first book have made their lair. Getting rid of those creatures and making certain that there can’t be anymore is ultimately the main plot of the book. It will be interesting to see if our heroes actually succeeded, or if this continues to be the main problem in the next novel.

The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Preston and Child continue exploring their fascination with museums in The Cabinet of Curiosities—an old-fashioned name for a museum. Instead of the museum beast, this time they are after “the surgeon”—a serial killer copying the crimes of a nineteenth century murderer. To catch him, everyone’s favorite FBI Special Agent, investigates both the original murderer and the current crime spree, bringing into the investigation archaeologist Nora Kelly, who I believe appears in many future tales.

Preston and Child succeed in making two fascinating crimes to investigate and in forcing the reader to try and figure out how the two sets of murders can be more closely connected than a simple copycat. Once we learn that the original killer was trying to find the secret to eternal life, the possibilities ramp up considerably. After all, these are the writers who gave us the museum beast, they clearly wouldn’t be afraid of a little science fiction in this third novel.

The best part of the book, however, isn’t the excellent pair of mysteries, it’s the glimpse into the fascinating character of Pendergast as we try to figure out why he’s really so interested in the original nineteenth century crimes. He was a good detective before. Now he becomes a fascinating mystery all in himself as we try and piece together what his connection to these murders actually is.

Old Bones by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

I have read a lot of Preston and Child books over the years and this is one of their best. It’s two intriguing mysteries in one. The first one centers on the infamous Donner Party and a splinter group that went mad in the mysterious Lost Camp—not to mention twenty-million-dollars-worth of gold coins. The second and seemingly unconnected mystery revolves around some very creepy grave robbers. Both storylines come together in the archaeological dig exploring the Lost Camp.

The story is absolutely gripping. On the one hand, we have an archaeological exploration of the most infamous group of cannibals in U.S. history—and the horror of that nineteenth century event is definitely having an impact on the archaeologists. On the other hand, we have some very twisted criminals with a creepy interest in robbing graves for no conceivable purpose. I don’t want to give too much away, but their interest seems sick from the very beginning and it only gets worse. Uncovering how these two plots come together is the point of the whole story. I’m happy to say that I figured out who was doing all the bad things, even though I had to wait for the authors to explain why they were doing it. Frankly, I found it completely fascinating and look forward to reading any sequels.

Lincoln Child

Deep Storm by Lincoln Child

I have always been fascinated by the idea of humans exploring the great depths of the oceans, so I am a sucker for a book or movie that takes place in a habitat deep beneath the sea. Deep Storm fits that bill perfectly—twelve thousand feet below the Atlantic. Add to that a mystery involving a secret government project and an inexplicable set of illnesses afflicting the people working on the station and you have the makings for a very good story. Unfortunately, while Child’s tale is enjoyable, it doesn’t hit a home run.

On the positive side, the mystery is fascinating and complicated by intrigues caused by geopolitics and mental illness. The tension is palpable and the pacing is great. It was easy to like and hate the appropriate characters and, most importantly, the ending worked. The ultimate threat lived up to all the hype we were exposed to getting there.

On the negative side, there was very little about the undersea research facility that impacted the story other than to isolate the cast from the rest of the world. The atmosphere in the deep-sea station was the same as on the surface and other than a couple of mandatory—the ocean is going to flood us and kill everyone—moments, the location had nothing to contribute to the story.

To make matters worse, the paranoid military guys fell on the wrong side of the argument about the aliens. Why would every person in Washington and all military personnel on the station be convinced that aliens had left a packet of helpful gifts for the unsophisticated peoples of earth? Not one of these paranoid individuals was willing to consider the idea that the aliens might not have our best interests at heart. At first, I thought this obviously ridiculous position was caused by the aliens, but as things turned out, that clearly wasn’t the case. And really—this needlessly strained credibility. The U.S. would still have gone after the alien tech even if it feared the interstellar visitors’ malevolent intentions.

Finally, I figured out what was causing the mental illness about half a book sooner than the hero did. Seeing as he is supposed to be a genius and I lack a medical degree, I would have liked to have seen him pick up my idea and run with it a lot sooner than he did.

Weighing the good and the bad, I’m still glad I read the book. It’s a fun novel, just not one that I ever expect to want to reread.

Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child

Lincoln Child offers another heart-pounding thriller when a group of scientists and their television-show-producing sponsors uncover a prehistoric monster frozen in the ice of the far north. Then the monster disappears before it can be defrosted on live television and the whole expedition falls apart. While the sponsors and their award-winning documentary producer search for a saboteur/thief among the scientists and crew, people begin to die horribly. Rather than make the sponsors rethink their initial assumptions, the deaths only increase their paranoia. But who or what is doing the killing? If you’re the reader, you’d bet your money on the monster waking up after its long cryogenic sleep. But what exactly is the creature and how are these people trapped in the remote north going to survive it?

This is a fun fast-moving novel that lovers of the action-thriller are going to thoroughly enjoy.