Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (audio book read by Rene Auberjonois)

During work at a Catherine Street construction site in lower Manhattan, a charnel of bones is discovered: 36 bodies, all told, buried around 100 years before. FBI Special Agent Pendergast takes one skull to archeologist Nora Kelly, who places that victim's age at 13. When Pendergast gets Kelly access to the site, she learns that the victims were nearly all teens, primarily boys, and that they all appear to have had similar injuries to the lumbar spine.

While Nora gets in trouble for her work with Pendergast, her on-and-off boyfriend, reporter William Smithback, Jr., of The New York Times is working so hard to get a scoop that he's ruining his relationship with Nora. Later, Smithback gets himself into hot water when he discovers an address before Pendergast and Nora do and goes to check out the location.

The discovery of a sheaf of letters leads to the identity of the perpetrator of the century-old murders — a scientist searching for the secret of longer life — but that turns out to be only the beginning of the mystery when the body of a 27-year-old woman is found with the same portion of the spinal cord (the cauda equina, or horse's tail) removed. This grotesque surgery was likely done while the woman was alive, and was thus the cause of death.

Is a copycat killer at large, or did the scientist actually find what he was looking for and has chosen to recommence his spree? Or is something even more sinister and mysterious going on? Pendergast is sure that "The solution to the new murders lies in the old." One thing is for sure: with authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, it will be something other than the mundane and will be somehow connected to "the Cabinet of Curiosities."

In this first Preston/Child collaboration to feature Pendergast as the protagonist, we learn that a streak of insanity runs in his family when he asks advice of his great-aunt Cordelia about other family members. An odd duck anyway, Pendergast see an attack on him as a "positive development" since it means he's getting close to a solution.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is altogether a fascinating read, commingling old and new science with the tropes of horror fiction. Preston and Child don't shy away from the horror of having a deranged surgeon perform his signature surgery without anesthesia (and fully awake) on a major character.

One particular highlight was highly unexpected. From his hospital bed (following the aforementioned "positive development") — in a supernatural twist on The Daughter of Time — Pendergast travels through time and puts himself back into late-19th-century New York (on a fact-finding expedition) using only his mind.

For a novel so otherwise grounded in reality, however strange and obscure that reality may sometimes be, it takes a definite leap of faith to follow Pendergast along on his flight of fancy. But it is simultaneously a very rewarding trip into the period and takes The Cabinet of Curiosities another notch above the fray.

Other authors would have simply had their characters find old documents or the like. This choice, though unorthodox, is an imaginative improvement, especially since the authors work hard to make it believable. (Though Pendergast is inscrutable enough to make it plausible that he would spend his time developing this skill.)

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 audiobook of The Cabinet of Curiosities. Auberjonois makes each character different while retaining a familiar thread throughout (though he doesn't quite achieve the "mellifluous" tone frequently attributed to Pendergast).

The Cabinet of Curiosities has a wonderful sense of atmosphere that will particularly delight fans of the novels of Robert Bloch. (Enoch Leng is an especially Blochian character.) 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 genre.

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