The Short Version: Bill Smithback has been viciously murdered by what appears to have been a dead man walking. With those closest to Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast seemingly targeted by these zombies, it’s a race against time to uncover the strange goings-on up in Inwood Park… but might Pendergast, Nora, D’Agosta, and the rest of the gang be up against something truly supernatural this time?
The Review: First off, this was one of those wonderful confluences of book and calendar: apparently, according to the cutting on the back cover, the action of this novel starts on October 7th. October Country, Agent Pendergast is on his way.
After the events of The Wheel of Darkness, it’s perfectly understandable to walk into this Pendergast novel wondering if Lincoln & Child were in fact headed straight down a supernatural path. Zombies (or, in the correct parlance, zombiis)? Voodoo/Voûdo/Vodun/Obeah? There is a sense, maintained throughout the entire novel, that this is a real thing and that we must open our minds to the stranger side of reality. D’Agosta, ever our skeptic, is on hand to quirk an eyebrow Pendergast’s way – but it’s somewhat shocking to see the ever-rational Pendergast lending so much credence to the possibility of the supernatural. Does it have to do with the aforementioned sea voyage? Is it because he grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by people who were much more in tune with the possibility of voodoo? Who knows – but it does make a reader reconsider Pendergast a little bit. Even men of science and rationality, it seems, need to believe in something sometimes.
But let’s start with the moment that actually makes this book unmissable: the opening scene, in which Bill Smithback is brutally murdered. It’s not a spoiler, seeing as even the ‘preview’ excerpt included at the back of The Wheel of Darkness gave it away – but man oh man, does it still pack a punch. On the eve of their wedding anniversary, Bill and Nora are returned home after a lovely night out. Nora pops off to get a special treat from their corner bakery and Bill is assaulted by this strange zombie figure. His death, perhaps because he is a character we’ve gotten to know over so long now or perhaps because it’s just viscerally written, is felt by the reader. And it allows the authors to get away with something that often doesn’t really come off on the page: the revenge angle. D’Agosta, especially, spends pretty much the whole book livid – and rightfully so. It might even be mulled that Pendergast’s willingness to entertain the supernatural stems from his attempts to grapple with a friend’s death. But whatever else it might be, it is certainly exciting: there is a propulsion to this novel that makes the reader almost willing to ignore the strange discrepancies or the not-quite-enough explanations at the end.
The plot itself is pretty cool and definitely in keeping with the odd thrillers that P&C have become known for: a strange cult living on a compound in the middle of Inwood Park at the Northern tip of Manhattan (a strange park, being mostly actual wild-growth forest – it’s like a whole other world, especially when you consider how we imagine Manhattan to be), sacrificing animals and generally being creepy. There’s a shadowy figure pushing all of the players towards the realizations that he wants them to have – making it out that the cult is the root of the evil when in reality it might just be… well, it’s still a cult, but not as bad as they thought – and while his plan is a little nonsensical, it does set up the dominoes in a satisfactory way. The last 150 pages or so are devoted to the non-stop adventure of several hours on a dark night (another trick that Mssrs. P&C continue to pull off well: the almost non-stop action over LOTS of pages) and those moments are certainly gripping. So, too, are some of the moments with the zombii attacks in the first half of the novel. One straight-up made me gasp in a ridiculous way on the subway.
And so why do I feel as though this novel was, in some ways, just marking time? A friend of mine who has read the entire series (including having read my advance copy of Blue Labyrinth before me) said that she felt like even the Helen Trilogy was a little uneven and that the spell of books between the Diogenes Trilogy and Blue Labyrinth was, on the whole, pretty weak. And I can’t say that I disagree. This novel wasn’t bad, by any means – but outside of some of the cool voûdo references and a little more look into Pendergast’s history (obliquely, but there for sure), it just feels pretty forgettable. Even the climax, running through conveniently curated tunnels, feels like a rehash of things that we’ve seen a couple of times – stretching back as far as Relic. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but also… it’s not good, you know?
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It isn’t as ridiculous as The Wheel of Darkness (although perhaps a little bit of that gung-ho weirdness would’ve helped; I will certainly never forget certain scenes from that book) but it also doesn’t really do anything but go through the motions. A strong opening, with the death of a beloved character, leaves us ready for something really fierce – but by the time we get to the epilogue, with Nora finally coming to terms with her love’s death, it all feels like a shrug. Or worse, a plot device. Still, even going through the motions, Preston & Child deliver an enjoyable read and there are plenty of things to find here for fans. The vague unresolved ending points us in the direction of this so-called Helen Trilogy and while I’m excited to see what that’s all about… I’m really just ready to jump ahead to Blue Labyrinth with the hopes that the true spark of originality returns.