The Short Version: Aloysius Pendergast, left for dead after the machinations of Count Fosco, returns through the swift and surprising intervention of his brother, the deadly and deranged Diogenes Pendergast. In a race against time, with Diogenes targeting those closest to his brother, Aloysius joins forces again with Vincent D’Agosta to stop his brother’s mad plan – but at what cost?
The Review: “You can tell a lot about a person by meeting their brother,” reads a line of almost-too-good-to-be-true irony in the midst of this novel. I mean, it’s the sort of line that will leave you screaming at the pages and telling the character that they have NO IDEA, OH MY GOD TURN AROUND NOW!
And when was the last time you were doing that at something that wasn’t a movie? I mean, we all do it when the idiot character is walking into the trap or into the spooky house in a schlocky horror film – but I can’t recall the last time I so genuinely felt those same emotions while reading a novel, to the point of wanting to call out to the character.
All of this is to say: this is a novel that you’d almost be better served to speak about in the parlance of the cinema than that of the written word. You almost don’t have time to stop and think about what’s happening, the plot is propelling you along at such a breakneck pace – and that’s okay. Diogenes falls into that weird realm of too-smart-villains who you also know are going to lose – that’s why we come to this genre, broadly. We don’t go to The Dark Knight to see the Joker ultimately triumph, we go to see how he will be laid low by Batman. Similarly, we see Pendergast up against a wall here – but the fun is not in seeing him scramble, but in hoping that the scramble will lead to the light. Of course, Mssrs. Preston & Child are never playing by the traditional rules…
Returning for a moment to Diogenes: we, as a culture, love to nitpick our villains. We do it all the time – their overly-machinated plots are, for those who are interested and/or of the Television-Without-Pity school of criticism, easy enough to question. You see it all the time (often rightfully so) when a blockbuster film comes out – so Loki got himself captured on purpose in order to facilitate all these other things that were apparently planned, happening at the right moments? It’s the logical extension of the Bond-villain school of over-planning, except that it sometimes goes a bit too far. And yet I find that there’s a certain pleasure in the over-the-top, meticulously thought-out plan. Diogenes proves himself to absolutely be as thoroughly evil and screwed up as he’s been built up to be – and while his plan seems a wee bit over the top, well, he’s also apparently the single most dangerous human being to ever walk the earth. If that puts more pressure on the plan to be perfect, well, isn’t that the thing? We can never see our blind spots, sometimes to the point of not even knowing that they exist – and Diogenes is only human, no matter how evil.
It’s also a delight to see the brief cameos from all of our friends collected so far in the series. Brief though several of them may be, it’s fun to (as I’ve said in nearly all of my Pendergast reviews thus far) catch a further glimpse of that larger world that the authors have created. It also reveals a lot about our hero – how he interacts with these people (interacts being a loose term) and what that, more than anything he’s maybe ever said, means about him as a person. Plus, his relationship with the indefatigable Vincent D’Agosta is one for the ages: I was not a huge fan of D’Agosta in the early days, although he was pleasant enough, but he has really blossomed into a character I care deeply about, in arguably the space of just two books. His fierce loyalty, sharp eye, and aggressive thinking – as well as the humorous counterpoint he provides – make him an ideal buddy for Pendergast and it’s a relief to know that AXLP has someone he can count on through anything, a Watson of sorts to his Holmes.
Rating: 5 out of 5. You have to just let the story take you over and then ride the wave to its eventual conclusion (an ever-sharper cliff to hang on though it might be). As with any Great Villain, you can nitpick their plan and find the holes – but it’s more fun, I think, to realize that the holes are irrelevant: it’s the game that’s where the fun lies. And this one is truly a race – not necessarily to save the day but simply to survive. It’s disturbing, in a sense, to see Pendergast on the back foot – and shocking to see that no one is safe – but that makes for an immensely gripping thriller. I closed this book and immediately picked up The Book of the Dead because I couldn’t bear even the slightest pause to see how the story continued…