The Short Version: Special Agent Pendergast is stuck in a super-max prison while his brother Diogenes continues to move inexorably towards the culmination of his horrific plot. Pendergast must first call on his friends to help him escape – but before he can face Diogenes, he must first face the single memory that he’s locked away deep inside himself… a memory that might just change who Aloysius Pendergast is…
The Review: Not unlike Return of the Jedi, The Book of the Dead picks up not immediately upon the heels of Dance of Death but rather some time later. Pendergast is in prison and his friends have been working tirelessly to break him out – and that first scene in this book with D’Agosta et al feels, indeed, just like the beginning of RotJ. As a result, we end up feeling like this book is going to follow that now-traditional third-part-of-trilogy structure – and, for the most part, it does. Our heroes are spread thin fighting a seemingly two-steps-ahead enemy and yet…
(SPOILERS might be a-comin’)
And yet… there’s never a true sense of danger here. Diogenes’ master plot, absolutely brilliant as it might be, never seems like it’ll have a chance of coming off. We just know, as readers, that Aloysius is going to save the day. Is it still an exciting rush to get there? Most certainly. But the reader does not doubt, even for an instant, that the plan will fail. Perhaps its because the poor Museum of Natural History has already been targeted by so many crimes and awful things that all ended up, through the diligent if unorthodox work of our good Agent Pendergast, resolved with minimal death that we can’t imagine a universe in which all those people in that tomb went insane. Especially with Nora and Viola in there – the gasp of delightful fear that came from Diogenes ‘killing’ Margo Green is completely wiped away when it’s revealed, in the waning pages of Dance of Death, that he failed. Yes, he’s still toying with her but… why? There doesn’t seem to be a point.
At the end of the day, that’s the question I seem to have about several of the plot points: what was the point? Even the eventual denouement and its ode to Reichenbach made me wonder ‘why’? Why force Pendergast to confront his past and set up this whole harried chance across the globe if Diogenes is going to be dispatched almost off-stage? The joys of this novel – and there are several, including multiple set-pieces of exquisite construction and destruction – are offset by the lingering dissatisfaction with just how neatly things were tied up. The issues with Constance are, I don’t doubt, going to overshadow the next book or two and I’m looking forward to seeing how things develop with Viola, between Vincent & Laura, even between Bill & Nora – but I felt as though I didn’t see Pendergast grow as much as I thought he did, here, and so I’m left wondering how I’m supposed to feel. There was just so much smoke and projections, not unlike the Senef exhibition.
Still, I can’t really say I disliked the book. The disparate plots are all individually exciting if not quite thrilling – especially the masterfully (if somewhat too omnisciently) planned prison break – and getting to spend more time with Diogenes as a character was much appreciated. He’s such a fascinating counter to Aloysius and to dip into their shared history (that love and hatred, the dance of death as it were, of two brothers so alike and yet so dissimilar) from both points of view made for compelling reading. But, for all of his criminal mastermind amazingness, Diogenes never truly felt like the match he’d been built up to be. Which is a shame, because I would’ve loved to’ve seen a true final brawl between the brothers – especially on that backdrop… but I won’t say any more.
Rating: 3 out of 5. On the one hand, there are the splendid and heart-poundingly well-paced action sequences – everything about the tomb, the prison, even the final act. But on the other hand, it’s all a lot of flash and the stakes never feel like they’re real. Despite having found Diogenes to be an utterly inspired Moriarty-Mycroft blend, I’m not sad to see him go. His presence elevated the potential of these novels higher than I think they could safely sustain for a prolonged period. This adventure over, it’s time to get back to the simpler things I think.