The Short Version: On vacation after the harrowing events of The Cabinet of Curiosities, Special Agent Pendergast finds his way out to Medicine Creek, Kansas – where a strange murder has just been discovered. Ritualistic, near the site of an old Indian massacre, on the eve of a major decision about the town’s future… it makes some in the town wonder if there’s something otherworldly at play. Pendergast, along with the plucky young Corrie Swanson, dives in to the unsettling mystery – some vacation this turns out to be…
The Review: The most striking thing about this entry in the Pendergast series is some of the visuals. There are moments – a side-effect of the Kansas setting no doubt – that feel ready-made for film. They are technicolor, they are kodachrome, they are searingly brilliant. The image of Pendergast stepping off the bus across the street from the police station. The thunderclouds massing on the horizon. The blood on the floor in the Gro-Bain factory. There are images here, really good ones.
And I think Preston & Child know this – because a good portion of the final act takes place in near darkness. What’s more different from the searing Kansas summer sun than darkness? It creates a very deep, very intriguing dichotomy in the reader’s head, subconscious though it might often be. There’s a sense of play at work here, a vigor in the writing that is apparent as we see the gentlemen trying something new. And it’s nice that they’ve, indeed, tried something new. It’s nice to see Pendergast out of New York City.
Not everything they try, of course, is entirely new. There’s still the bumbling and full-of-himself cop, there’s even a throwback to the denouement of Reliquary – but the voice is really starting to appear now. Pendergast’s idiosyncrasies feel rooted in a person who is flesh and blood, not a Holmesian ideal – after a ‘memory crossing’ leaves him without an answer in this book, it’s fascinating to see him at a loss. And his immediate understanding of Corrie (who it’s nice to ‘meet’, seeing as I’ve already met who she grows up to be) – his admiration of her, in fact – is also deeply humanizing. Here’s a guy who might be smarter than everyone else in the room and certainly more capable, but we never get the sense that he is superhuman. Yes, he’s doing most of this shit in fancy shoes and suits but James Bond did too.
The plot again turns on something potentially (but probably not… but maybe…) supernatural – and it was something I wish they’d dug into further here. The eventual reveal was not terribly surprising, although an interesting and certainly extra-ordinary circumstance – but the legends and ghosts of the plains are relatively untapped in my experience and it could’ve been interesting to see these things go a little further before stripping aside the curtain. Maybe that’s just my recent experience with the Comanche talking, though, I don’t know. There was also (for my money) not quite enough done with the small-town tension thing. Oh, it’s there all right – don’t get me wrong. There’s a terrific scene at a Sunday service that goes pretty bad pretty fast and Maisie’s diner, the Kraus Kaverns, all of that stuff feels genuine and homey. But for all the talk about how everyone knows everyone in this small town and how they’re all there and scared and all that, I never really got the sense that I knew many people. I’m not saying I wanted to listen in on Pendergast’s meetings with Mrs. Tealander, the town records keeper, but I think I would enjoy a story where Pendergast enters a close-knit, small town where evil is afoot – and that the evil is, indeed, a part of that town. I would be fascinated to see the results, as here some of the things felt a little forced in their placement or drawn from the general well of plot/casting.
I also appreciate the way that the authors are setting up the broader world of these novels within each individual book. References to Pendergast’s brother, that mysterious pair of eyes in the mansion on Riverside Drive, excerpts from Pendergast’s FBI jacket… we’re coming to see the bigger picture and it is a fascinating one. The individual case, of course, must be our prime mover throughout any given story – but when you’re allowing the cases to exist inside this larger world and there is an informed balance between these two things, it makes for an exponentially more engrossing reading experience. And considering I burned through the last 150 pages in the space of maybe an hour this morning… well, there you go.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. At the end of the day, the individual books in this series turn on the case at hand – and while this was certainly an interesting one, it didn’t really draw me in like Cabinet or even Relic. There was something a little too ungrounded – not the eventual reveal, not even the experience of solving the case, but rather a sense that the authors left this somewhat more lightly sketched. There are things that wrapped up too simply and ‘surprisingly’ where they could’ve been a little more genuine and innovative. But then again, I might be wrong: this book might, in fact, be about introducing Corrie and developing Pendergast much further as a character. Either way, it was still a fun read.