The Short Version: Intrigued by the prospect of a low-key case (and the promise of a very rare bottle of wine as payment), Pendergast and Constance head to the Massachusetts coast. What they uncover there, however, is a dark scene from the town’s history – and an even darker scene playing out in the present…
The Review: One of my favorite things about the Pendergast series was, especially in the early going, the willingness to tightrope along the line of the supernatural. Pendergast’s modern-day, genteel-Southern Sherlock Holmes is a terrific creation on his own but when his cases take on something a bit strange, that’s when the series really sings. Even from the earliest moments, in the Relic duology, there has been a willingness to play fast and loose with the bonds of reality that more often than not I find deeply pleasing. Sometimes it goes awry (the Helen trilogy and Pendergast’s shift into Ludlum-esque ubermensch, for example) but more often than not (Chongg Ran, Enoch Leng, Diogenes, and so on) it gives just the right thrill of the strange in a way that so many authors just don’t do (or don’t know how to do).
So I was deeply pleased by the prospect of a Pendergast mystery taking place on the shores of Massachusetts, near strange places both real (Salem) and fictional (Innsmouth). Mssrs. Preston & Child seemed excited at the prospect too, allowing their inner Stephen Kings to take over at times, creating a perfectly rendered small town harboring dark secrets. Toss in hints of witchcraft – not to mention the novel’s back half twist – and you get a perfect October addition to this long-running series.
It was a relief to see things largely operating on a lower key than they have for Pendergast lately. Although Blue Labyrinth and White Fire were certainly enjoyable and definitely a recovery from the wreck of the Helen trilogy, they still lacked the verve of the earlier novels and I started to wonder if (as with any long-running series) the wind was finally falling out of the creators’ sails. As though they realized this, the creators decide to strip things back a bit: Pendergast has been hired, taking the case rather on a whim, to track down a burgled wine cellar. He and Constance arrive in town, feeling more like Conan Doyle characters than they have in a while, and set to discovering what might’ve happened. Things take a sharp and dark turn when Pendergast discovers a walled-up prison cell in the aforementioned cellar – and the push and pull of keeping a town’s secrets buried vs. trying to profit off of them… it feels like a tangible and easily contained mystery, the sort that the series used to do so well.
The dark secret in the town doesn’t have the same weight as grappling with the specter of slavery (which is frankly where I thought it was going) but it still plays at a popular theme these days: our forefathers did some bad, bad things and so how do we reckon with that legacy? The authors bring in some real history alongside some fictionalized stuff (Exmouth, for example, is not a real town) and I was delighted to never quite know what was or wasn’t part of real history – which is the right blend for this kind of story, because the reader’s default rather has to be “I guess it could all be true” in order to continue enjoying the story. There are few things one could wish for more than to be allowed to be so open as a reader.
Speaking of openness, it was interesting to see both Pendergast and Constance open up a little to each other. Their relationship has always been a complex one and the moments where it nearly turns into something else are handled realistically and with an emotional aplomb and grace that honestly surprised me. In a series that has often pushed character development aside or very consciously carved out just-a-little-smidge-of-time for it, it was quite nice to see it layered in here. Pendergast and Constance both come out of this book a little more human than they’ve been in some time, which is just as welcome as the (apparently) smaller scale crime.
To that parenthetical… I should warn of some SPOILERS AHEAD as I pivot to quickly discuss the back third of the novel. As the primary mystery wraps up, it’s not hard to see that there’s quite a bit of book to go – and so something is bound to happen. That something definitely does happen and boy howdy does it spin this book on its head. Turns out the rumors of witches fleeing Salem and settling somewhere else… not only is it true, but they’re still practicing in Exmouth. The transition between the two parts of the book could’ve used a little more finesse (almost as though one of the authors wrote the wine/shipwreck mystery and the other wrote the witch stuff – it has that distinct a gear-shift) but an early allusion to The Hound of the Baskervilles pays off when a literal devil goes on a rampage through this small town. Where did it come from? How did it get loose? These are questions answered in a more cliffhangery sense (and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling those) but suffice to say that the authors relish in the autumnal creepiness of their creations. One just might’ve wished they’d brought it all together a little more cleanly, as fun as it all was.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A solid standalone entry in the long-running series, with two solid (if perhaps a bit clumsily connected) mysteries and some honest-to-god character development for Pendergast and his young ward. Plus, the authors return to the spookiness and strangeness that factored into some of their best early work – this time introducing witchcraft and the macabre, with a twist straight out of the Conan Doyle playbook to conclude. It’s been awhile since I felt like I had to run out and get the next Pendergast book… but damned if I’m not heading to a bookstore right now to see if there’s an early copy of The Obsidian Chamber.