Monday, May 11, 2009

Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (unabridged audio book read by Rene Auberjonois)

Respected New York Times journalist William Smithback Jr., best known for his exposés, has been murdered. His wife Nora Kelly, archeologist with the Museum of Natural History, was brutally attacked as the killer left. But this is an open and shut case. The perpetrator, the couple's neighbor Colin Fearing, was identified by five witnesses and was captured clearly on security cameras. There's only one problem: Colin Fearing's death certificate was signed ten days ago.

When voodoo artifacts are found at the scene, the press cries "Zombie!" And when DNA testing confirms that the killer was indeed Fearing, things start to get really strange. Is there really some form of zombi voodoo involved, or is the solution as simple as a local multimillionaire paying for a hit on Smithback, the reporter who smeared his name? And what does a well-hidden Manhattan commune (connected by Smithback in the press to animal sacrifices) have to do with it all?

Both angles are thoroughly investigated by FBI Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast and New York police lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta (the heroes of several of authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's previous novels), with the added incentive that Smithback was a friend of theirs and accompanied them on previous cases. But you can be sure that the authors will not let us off with an easy answer.

Cemetery Dance is my first of the Preston/Child collaborations. I had previously enjoyed Preston's solo novel The Codex (one of the best books I read in 2008), and it's great to learn that he and Child work together equally well. Readers interested in voodoo and other similar practices will find a lot of good information here, as Pendergast's mentor arrives and acts as a veritable encyclopedia on the various forms, specifically obeah.

But Cemetery Dance is not all talk. There is plenty of action, and no character is ever truly safe. One particular highlight is a chase through a large museum storage room housing dozens of plastic-covered whale skeletons. And Preston and Child manage to leaven the intensity inherent in a murder being investigated by the friends of the deceased by including some slower scenes delving into D'Agosta's other personal struggles, particularly his relationship with fellow cop Laura Hayward. In the process, this makes him much more fully developed than the sometimes chimerical Pendergast. (A Sherlock Holmes type, Pendergast is prone to unconventional methods of investigation, often leaving D'Agosta to clean up the mess, and D'Agosta is getting a little tired of this role.)

The authors' highly descriptive style immerses the reader in a richly drawn, though unfamiliar, world. And their intelligent approach appeals to more literate readers while their plot operates solidly within the confines of the thriller genre. This includes, of course, a number of cliches that must be expected, if not necessarily welcomed, such as how, no matter what information is needed, Pendergast magically seems to have access to it. (Perhaps Cemetery Dance will boost sales of the works of Wade Davis, whom Pendergast references by name.)

In addition to D'Agosta and the fascinating Pendergast (though flawed, surely one of fiction's great idiosyncratic investigators), Cemetery Dance is peopled with other terrific characters — people like Bill Smithback, Nora Kelly, and Laura Hayward — who I am eager to encounter again. Luckily, most or all of them are featured in the many previous Preston and Child novels, like The Cabinet of Curiosities (the one I'm most likely to try next).

Actor René Auberjonois — probably best known for his television work on Benson (for which he was Emmy-nominated), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Boston Legal, as well as in the film version of M*A*S*H — shows off his impressive vocal range in the unabridged reading of Cemetery Dance. Auberjonois makes each character different while retaining a familiar thread throughout (though he doesn't quite achieve the "mellifluous" tone frequently attributed to Pendergast).

Delving into their world for the first time, I did not expect something so akin to a horror novel coming from this duo. But I'm not complaining. Preston and Child walk the line of mainstream thriller and zombie horror deftly in Cemetery Dance, and it makes me wonder if perhaps the zombie subgenre is not as over and done with as it would seem, if such a literate and intelligent plot can be gleaned from it. Maybe more authors need to go back to the original roots of the phenomenon.


David Cranmer said...

That sounds like a great plot. Will look for the audio version in my travels.

Chris said...

This is a Leisure publication, right? I was on a big Leisure kick a few months ago and might start one anew—just picked up Edward Lee's City Infernal. Not sure if you caught it, but I interviewed Lee over on my L'Amour blog. It was down for a couple of months but now everything's back up. Thought you'd be interested—noticed you're reading some Laymon right now. Looks good!

Enjoying your reviews!

Craig Clarke said...

Actually, Cemetery Dance is out from Grand Central (an imprint of the Hachette group) in hardcover and audio.

Lee's City Infernal is great. Infernal Angel, not so much. Glad to see you're back in action.

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