The Short Version: Days before a new exhibit is set to open in New York’s Museum of Natural History, two kids are found brutally slaughtered – and the killings keep coming. The NYPD, led by Lt. D’Agosta with assistance from FBI agent Pendergast, team up with a plucky researcher at the museum to track down the killer – but the reality behind what they find may be more horrifying than they can handle…
The Review: Ah, the mid-90s. A time of optimism and imagination, no doubt – sure, you might see more serious and considered novels coming out some twenty years later but the one thing we seem to’ve lost is our ability to write highwire intellectual thrillers like this. The cover blurb calls this “far above Crichton’s Jurassic Park” and while it’s been long enough since I read that that I’m not going to get into an argument about it, I have to admit that the two novels feel like kindred spirits. They take a piece of science fact, spin it forwards towards a possible outcome, and then wreak imaginary havoc with the results – and we get to go along for the exhilarating ride.
Here, the so-called “Callisto Theory” (a twist on the actual theories of saltation) posits that sometimes there are rapid leaps in evolution meant to construct an unstoppable predatory killing machine, to thin the existing populations of any given species. You don’t have to worry too much about the science, although Preston and Child do give us a fair amount of it – enough, I’d say, that a reader can feel like this all makes some kind of sense. That is, nobody’s going to necessarily believe that this sort of thing happens after reading this book but they’ll also see how it could, based on the science given to us. Coupled with the “we found it in a remote section of the Amazon!” story, one of the few places in the world still ripe with possibility for unknown (or thought-to-be-extinct) species, a reader is pretty much hook, line, and sinker for the possibility that a massive and nigh-unstoppable killing machine – a freak of evolution, a monster in the plainest sense – has come to New York City.
After the reader buys into the concept, it’s just sitting back and watching the action unspool before you. The upcoming exhibition (called Superstition and WOW do I wish that was a real thing – although I can see why the Museum didn’t want to do that particular cross-promotion) is a big deal for the museum and the top brass want it to go on, so they’re ready to cover up whatever they can. Pendergast, on loan from the New Orleans field office (and making a pretty kick-ass debut), and D’Agosta know there’s something weird going on and they’re doing their best to figure it out. Then strings start getting pulled and the good guys are on the outside and everything looks pretty bleak… and then it’s the night of the event.
The last nearly 200 pages or so (of a 450ish pg book) are devoted to the night of the exhibition opening and all of the shit that goes down – and at first, a jaded 21st Century reader might think “god, how are you going to spin this out for that long?” but if you’ve bought in (and I bought in early on in this delightful adventure), the pages fly by. The Museum of Natural History (vaguely fictionalized here and moved, I think, several blocks towards the Hudson for some reason) is a fantastic place to let your imagination run wild – especially after dark – and Preston and Child really let it go. Even for readers who’ve never been to this particular Natural History museum… think of whichever one you’ve likely been to, even if it was as a kid. The dinosaur bones, the dioramas. One version of this imaginative exercise turns into that Ben Stiller movie… the other is much darker and much scarier and much more fun. And it’s called Relic.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Oh, sure, you can say that the characters are feel relatively rote (except Pendergast, who – while showing signs of the Holmes family tree – is refreshingly unique) and that the dialogue sometimes is a bit predictable. You can even argue that characters behave irrationally, all in the interest of furthering the story. I’m not going to necessarily disagree with you – but I also didn’t really care. This isn’t a book that you look to for exceptional flights of prose (although there are some damn good lines, to be fair) but rather one that you come to for the thrill of it, for the desire to (as I did last night) stay up past midnight pushing through to the end. For me, this novel is a charming reminder that sometimes we’re meant to sit back and just enjoy the adventure – suspend any disbelief and just have fun. And this is a great novel with which to do just that.