Brimstone (Pendergast #5)

brimstoneThe Short Version: Thirty years ago, four young men conjured the devil to make a pact for fame and fortune.  Now, it seems, the devil has come to collect: one of the four, a renowned art critic, has been found dead at his Southampton, NY home of what appears to be some sort of spontaneous combustion, with the scent of brimstone and a hoofprint nearby.  Special Agent Pendergast and his old friend Vincent D’Agosta stumble into the case and race to discover the truth behind one of the more baffling cases of Pendergast’s career…

The Review: Of course this novel was set in October.  You can practically feel the autumn radiating out of it – from the descriptions of the trees in both Southampton and in Florence to the creepy-spooky possibility of the devil himself come to play… I mean, yeah.  I’m all about it.  Even the massive literary reference (one I admittedly was unaware of until the postscript) feels appropriate for a cracking good fall read.  Too bad it’s spring, I suppose.

And too bad it also runs a little too long – there’s an entire subplot that could easily (to my mind) have been excised and that would’ve made the whole book sing like a missing Strad.  Instead, it falters at times – an excellent reproduction, but a reproduction nonetheless (if we care to extend the metaphor).  SPOILERS are, I believe, going to ensue here to some extent – not on the primary msytery, but perhaps to some other details.
So…. take that as you will.

Anyway: at over 700 paperback pages, I’m not bemoaning more time with A.X.L. Pendergast or even Vinnie D’Agosta, who returns from his Northern exile as a far more interesting character than he was in those early books – but, then, the removable subplot doesn’t really have anything to do with them.  See, Laura Hayward (remember her?  She’s moved up in the world – and I’m glad to see her intersecting with folks again; she’s a fine addition to this rotating cast of characters) spends pretty much the entirety of the second half of the novel dealing with a fundamentalist camp that’s popped up on the edge of 5th Ave at Central Park outside of a building where one of the devil-murders occurred.  (I should note, and this is to Mssrs. Preston & Child’s credit, that it’s actually surprisingly prescient of what Occupy would look like all these years later – not the reasons for being there, but the impact of having a bunch of people descend on a park in NYC and how the police & city government would react to it.)  But the plot exists completely independently from the investigation happening, by this time, in Italy and it feels superfluous.  Yes, it’s nice to see Hayward have her own little story-progression but I didn’t particularly care because that’s not why I, as a reader, was reading the book: I was here for the Pendergast-driven mystery, especially one as engaging as this.  The Reverend Buck scenes tore me out of an otherwise wholly engrossing story.

As for that story… well, I won’t go into spoilers here because it’s better to experience yourself.  I loved the far-flung, almost James Bond-esque adventure here and to see Pendergast and D’Agosta truly out on a limb, on their own, provides great development opportunities for both characters.  The sense of adventure across an Italian countryside is straight out of classic “Boy’s Adventure” novels that our fathers read as, well, boys – and Preston & Child do it to the nines.  The aforementioned literary influence, too, is a tip of the hat in that direction and it shows the two authors to be completely assured of their own abilities in a confident but not cocky way.  It makes for delightful reading.

The other thing that makes for delightful reading is the continued sense of the ground being seeded for things to come.  A brief island stop during the Italian tour is almost comic in the, shall-we-say ‘unique’, way it unsettles Pendergast while a mysterious figure who must obviously be related to an equally mysterious note appears a few times to eyebrow-raising intrigue.  While it undercuts certain parts of the tension of any given story, it does give the reader the sense that there are much larger stories being told – a sense quite rare, I’d say, in longer-running series.  Oh sure, a handful of story arcs can be handled by most series writers but to really play the long game with characters like Constance or even Corrie (the latter of whom does not appear in this novel) feels almost unique.  Our writers possess quite the combined imagination – although they could take it easy on the winking authorial interjections about critics and about their own various preferences being glommed onto the characters.  You guys are better than that.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  This easily would’ve been a five star review, maybe even higher, had it not been for the unnecessary padding of Laura Hayward’s storyline.  The rest of the novel is deeply rooted in the occult, in horror stories, in classic mysteries and adventures, and it reads like a modern classic – but the novel sinks a bit in those wheel-spinning, “oh that’s really it?” scenes.  That said, it ends on a terrific cliffhanger and I’ve come to count not just Pendergast but D’Agosta as well as characters who I’m privileged to spend time with – I’ve already delved into the next book because, well, why wait?


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