The Short Version: Agent Pendergast just discovered that his wife’s death wasn’t an accident – but that’s not all. After an attempt on his life, he discovers that she might not even be dead. A race across the world ensues, one whose resolution not only puts Pendergast and his nearest in danger but threatens to rewrite everything he thought he knew about his wife.
The Review: On the fifth page, in the space of a page, a stag is “a thousand yards off” two times. Despite the characters moving, despite common sense saying that you probably should edit your books, that line appears twice on a single page. Those exact words, “a thousand yards off” – and for some reason, this triggered concern in your reader’s breast. Being guilty of repetition probably more often than the next person, I’m very conscious of when it happens on the page and for such a glaring editorial lapse to occur in such a relatively high-profile piece of writing… well, it did not give me hope. For where there is shoddy editing, the quality of the story must also be questioned.
And questioned this one should be. A friend told me that she nearly gave up on the Pendergast novels after this trilogy (it was only after my reading White Fire and discovering the series for the first time that she got back into it) and I can see why. The most glaring thing, of course, is that Pendergast is no longer the Pendergast we came to know in the early days. Despite a shoddily-writ memory crossing thrown in to appease fans, you could take Pendergast out of this novel and drop in a generic action hero and nobody would be the wiser. He performs superhuman feats of strength and endurance, diving and rolling all over the place, while emptying several clips worth of bullets with targeted precision. There’s a whole lot of headshots and John Wick-esque action tomfoolery here… except that 1) it doesn’t have the sense of humor that movie happily careened around with and 2) it doesn’t fit with Pendergast. It just doesn’t.
Look, I’m not one for telling authors what they should and shouldn’t do with their characters – do whatever the hell you’d like, they’re your characters. But that doesn’t mean we have to enjoy it or find it quote-unquote honest. And this, quite simply, is not honest.
It’s also just a laughable novel. (I’m going to, by the way, indulge in some SPOILERS here… but also, honestly, you can skip this one and just catch up on wikipedia if you want to jump ahead to White Fire.) Not only was Pendergast’s wife’s death actually murder…. it turns out she wasn’t dead at all. A fact that several people tell Pendergast is entirely impossible, by the way. They exhume the body, do a DNA test, check dental records, search her face in government computers, and more – and they keep coming up with DEAD. But Pendergast, a man of such clarity in other matters, just blindly believes that she could not actually possibly be dead. And when he turns out to be right and gets reunited, she’s kidnapped right in front of him in Central Park. This is the stuff of a Liam Neeson film, not a slightly-supernatural adventure/mystery series.
And did I mention there are Nazis?
There are Nazis. Not only are there Nazis, they’re super well-organized and over-the-top ridiculous and they were the ones somehow behind what was going on in Fever Dream, the ones responsible for Helen’s non-death, and also Helen is actually (as it turns out) related to them.
If you’re still engaged, you’re a better reader than I. The book, it must be said, races along – but that racing is to the detriment of the characters and the actual story. Even reliable supporting characters like Vincent D’Agosta are pretty much just marking time here, showing up and doing what’s expected of them (a lovely dinner scene between D’Agosta & Hayward where she disapproves of Pendergast? check!) and little else. It’s meant to be the Pendergast show (because this one hits real close to home) but when he’s become as flattened and uninteresting as he has here, you want the supporting cast to step up and help out. When they don’t, you realize that the flaw is much larger than some awkward characterization. Hell, they even seem to regret killing off Smithback and introduce a journalist who stumbles onto the story (and seems to be nearly as smart as Pendergast, or at least damn lucky with his breaks) – before dispatching him rather unceremoniously. It all just felt messy.
It should be noted that there’s one interesting subplot here, involving Constance Greene. She manages to rise above the boring & predictable, just a smidge, by dint of her being a thoroughly incredible character. I mean, she’s over a hundred years old – and putting her in a mental hospital where they’re trying to discern her delusion is a terrific setup. If that setup is largely left untouched and is, instead, purely an opportunity to put her in danger later… well, that is the fault of the authors too.
Rating: 2 out of 5. It’s not worth it, really. Were I reading this series straight through, I would be giving up right about now. I wouldn’t even care to know whether or not Pendergast manages to get Helen back in the next book. So it’s good, then, that I started with White Fire and that Two Graves will in fact be the ‘last’ Pendergast before I’m all caught up. Now, I want to read it just for the completist in me. That and the fact that it’ll take, if this one was any indication, perhaps an afternoon? But I’m not getting my hopes up to see the real A.X.L. Pendergast & co. in its pages – perhaps we can all just pretend that Preston & Child went on vacation for a time and someone else wrote this trilogy in their stead…