The Short Version: Agent Pendergast’s wife died on safari some twelve years ago – but a chance examination of her hunting rifle reveals something else: that she was, in fact, murdered. Pendergast sets off to discover who caused it and why, stripping away parts of himself in the ruthless pursuit of answers… answers that might reveal that he never knew his bride at all.
The Review: I’m torn about this Pendergast novel, for a couple of reasons. For one, it feels paradoxically both too long and too short: it is clearly the opening installment of a trilogy, even more so than the first Diogenes book, with all the commensurate cliffhangers at the end… but the plot on which this particular installment turns feels undercooked, to the point that a hundred fewer pages might not’ve made much difference. For another, a good friend who has read all of the series told me that the Helen trilogy nearly put her off of them for good. It was only after she read my advance copy of Blue Labyrinth that she said she felt like the series was back to where it needed to be, in terms of engaging narrative and quality storytelling. So I approach this movement with trepidation.
The novel opens with the Pendergasts, married some two years, off on safari – the horrible safari that claims Helen’s life – and it’s interesting to catch even this glimpse of the younger man. It reminds the reader of the all-too-human man whose more human, quirkier traits have been tamped down over the back half of this series. Remember how weird it was when Pendergast laid down in the dirt to do the memory crossing in Still Life with Crows or when he did it on the streets of NYC in The Cabinet of Curiosities? What happened to that guy? Where did he go? Since when does he wantonly blow things up and get into significant gunfights like he’s being played by Tom Cruise? Something feels off here, in terms of Pendergast’s characterization, and it can’t just be written off with “oh, he’s stressed out about discovering his wife was murdered” – no matter how often the authors try to do just that. Yes, Pendergast has always operated outside the normal bounds of behavior but for once I found myself agreeing with Laura Hayward that he was way out of line far too often in this series. And too backfooted – it seems obvious to me that he should know who is behind all of this, that he wouldn’t have had at least an inkling of Helen’s interest/other life, based on the character we’ve come to know. Such an enormous blind spot just feels out of place, and yet we’re expected to swallow it without a thought.
This having been said, the authors still know how to whip the horses and make the novel crackle along. We get to see a bit more of the Pendergast family history, including their plantation house outside of New Orleans, and the oddity of that family remains as interesting as ever. The plot jumps from place to place like a Bond novel/film and you kind of just have to hang on for the ride – but it’s a ride worth taking, because you plow through the whole thing like there’s nothing else worth doing in the world. Mssrs. Preston & Child retain their interest in the Crichton-esque scientific possibilities out there, keeping things just this side of realistic while not seeming too far-fetched. And Pendergast & co remain delightful characters to spend some time with. Laura Hayward gets a good supporting role this time around, forcing her to come to better terms with Pendergast’s not-by-the-book methods. It doesn’t play out as organically as it could, but it shows some nice development and willingness on the part of the writers not to let characters get too stagnant.
Also, the Audubon subplot is immensely interesting – although I was disappointed to discover that it was mostly fictionalized. Audubon’s bird paintings, of course, are real and the value cannot be understated. But I thought it felt a little hamfisted to have created this whole subplot of his sickness, his madness, this Black Frame painting – especially in a series where they’ve managed to ground things in reality so well, despite how weird some of the stories have gotten. I don’t know why, this just felt noticeable, that they were making things up, where it hasn’t in the past. And, while we’re wishing, I just wish they’d let Pendergast himself a little more alone. He doesn’t need to be an action hero; he’s fine as the weird unorthodox Southern Holmes we met all those books ago.
OH I almost forgot: what the hell is going on with Constance, by the way? She suddenly decides to toss her baby overboard on the Atlantic crossing? That whole thing is like barely mentioned after being introduced… again, I suppose, one of the flaws of a clear first-book-of-several. Hopefully these questions will be answered…
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I’ll round up to 4 because I certainly enjoyed myself, reading this as the summer arrives for real. It’s a great beach read, not too serious and not too fluffy either. Still, as the Pendergast novels enter double digits, the authors show some signs of restlessness. I’m lucky enough to know that the series rebounds a bit down the line – but they’ve lost sight a bit of who their character is and what kind of man he’s meant to be. I miss the old Pendergast, even as I find out more about his backstory and his life and continue to ride along on his adventures. Here’s hoping the final two books I need to read before catching up don’t ruin him for me forever.