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.
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.