Written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, narrated by René Auberjonois — This fast-paced thriller – book 14 in the wild escapades of FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast – follows the agent on the trail of the killer of his son, and, when he is knocked out of commission by a deadly poison, the action shifts to two women desperately seeking the ingredients for a possible antidote.
Pendergast is an eccentric, so wealthy he takes an annual $1 salary from the FBI only for form’s sake. He has residences on Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, an apartment in The Dakota, and a large Louisiana plantation called Penumbra. His wit and New Orleans courtliness pervades his interactions with everyone, even when he’s aiming his Les Baer .45 at them. His avocations have made him a connoisseur of food, wine and art, and adept at of various combat disciplines. He’s even a practitioner of a rare form of Eastern mysticism, Chongg Ran, that provides deep insight and, in this novel, allows him to see into the past.
The story opens with an unexpected knock on the door of Pendergast’s Riverside Drive mansion, answered by his ward Constance. A man – a dead man – falls to the ground. Pendergast’s son Alban. Father and son were more than estranged, they had become implacable enemies (in previous volumes). Whoever killed Alban is sending a powerful message and appears to have left not a single clue. Is it the perfect crime? Or clever bait to lure the agent into a trap?
The post-mortem discovery of a highly unusual lump of turquoise in Alban’s stomach is the only slender clue, and its very tenuousness persuades Pendergast to plunge into an investigation. The journey to find the mine where the turquoise originated takes him to California’s dessicated Salton Sea and the cobwebbed subbasements of a long-abandoned casino hotel, the Salton Fontainebleau.
Meanwhile, NYPD Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta is investigating a different murder, that of a low-ranking employee at Preston and Childs’s favorite crime scene, the American Museum of Natural History. D’Agosta learns the man had been working with a visiting professor who was interested in only one particular human skeleton. But information about this skeleton doesn’t add up, and suspicion points to the professor as the employee’s murderer. D’Agosta enlists the aid of scientist Margo Green to help him figure out what was so special about this particular set of bones. She soon discovers that one of the skeleton’s bones is missing. Although busy investigating this case, D’Agosta cannot let go of his interest in the death of Alban Pendergast. He is convinced more is going on than Pendergast has revealed.
It turns out the Pendergast family has a rather large and grisly skeleton in its closet. Pendergast’s great-great-grandfather Hezekiah was a patent medicine salesman, and his concoction ended up poisoning a great many people, including his own wife. They died horribly. Now it appears someone seeks revenge for these long-ago deaths.
For some time, Constance has trolled the underground archives of the Riverside Drive house, creating a history of the Pendergast family. Through this effort, she’s become well acquainted with Pendergast’s shady ancestors and the basement laboratory filled with arcane materials and dangerous chemicals. When the agent falls ill, an apparent victim of his ancestor’s own invention, she and Margo team up to recreate with modern methods the antidote Hezekiah devised in the fruitless effort to save his wife. If they are to obtain all the ingredients they need, they must go outside the law to do so. And time is running out.
Preston and Child never let up the tension throughout their complex, information-packed narrative, and they have created unique and well-rounded characters. Pendergast and the novel’s action may occasionally become too over the top for some readers, including me, but he and it are always interesting. This is the first book in the series I’ve read, and I had no difficulty following the story or the subtext of the interactions, even though I knew much had taken place prior to the current story.
Noted American actor René Auberjonois has narrated 13 other volumes by Preston and Child, and conveys Pendergast’s Southern gentleman charm quite convincingly.
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Grand Central Publishing
CFL Rating: 4 Stars