Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (book one of the Diogenes Pendergast trilogy)

"Criticism is a profession which allows one a certain license to be vicious outside the bounds of normal civilized behavior. One would never tell a person in private that his painting was a revolting piece of trash, but the critic thinks nothing of making the same pronouncement to the world as if he were performing a high moral duty. There is no profession more ignoble than that of the critic—except perhaps that of the physician presiding at an execution." — Father Cappi in Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Agnes Torres enters the home of her employer, art critic Jeremy Grove, to find his eyes charred, his body apparently burned from the inside out. The cloven hoofprint on the floor suggests that the Devil had finally come for the town's most notorious resident. The following morning, the crime scene reunites a certain Aloysius Pendergast with Sergeant Vincent D'Agosta. (D'Agosta had left NYPD homicide as a lieutenant to write books, couldn't make a go of it, and subsequently had to get a lower-paying job with the Southampton PD.)

BrimstoneBut D'Agosta's politically ambitious pain-in-the-kiester boss, Lieutenant Braskie breaks up the reunion, seeing Pendergast only as a trespasser. When Pendergast later IDs himself as a special agent of the FBI, Braskie reluctantly welcomes him aboard.

The medical examiner has trouble determining Grove's time of death when the corpse's temperature still measures 108°F, and "good Old Testament brimstone" is found. Braskie doesn't want the lowly sergeant involved in such a high-profile case, but when Pendergast has D'Agosta named FBI liaison, the duo are officially working together again.

The next victim is Nigel Cutforth, dead it seems of a similar form of spontaneous human combustion, as described in Doctor Faustus and other tales of soul-selling ("the fire within" of the medievals), merely lending more evidence of the Devil's seeming involvement. Captain Laura Hayward takes command and demands that all be by the book, with regular meetings for updates and all paperwork cleared through her office. (For regular readers who may be wondering, regular series characters Bill Smithback and Nora Kelly are off on their honeymoon and do not appear in this book.)

While Preston and Child's characters are always interesting, a particular highlight of Brimstone is one Count Fosco — seemingly lifted part and parcel from Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White — whose pet mice here are robotic and who emerges from the book as one of the series' great villains. Other literary referents include Stephen King's The Shining and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," which lends itself nicely to a cliffhanger ending.

Brimstone briefly introduces readers to Pendergast's brother Diogenes, who we're not surprised to learn is criminally insane (since we learned in The Cabinet of Curiosities that insanity runs rampant throughout the Pendergast lineage, sometimes beneficially but usually not). If Pendergast is Sherlock Holmes, then Diogenes is both Mycroft and Moriarty. (Even his name is a reference to the gentlemen's club Mycroft frequents in the Conan Doyle stories.)

As the group works hard to solve the current case, a letter arrives for Pendergast from Diogenes; it's a challenge, and Pendergast works to complete this solution so he can focus his energies on his brother. Though Brimstone is the first of the authors' "Diogenes trilogy," his part is very small here; he will play a much larger role in the following two books, Dance of Death and The Book of the Dead.

Brimstone makes fine use of Preston's experience living in Italy (during which time he became involved in the Monster of Florence case) to paint authentic atmosphere in the second half, when the case takes Pendergast and D'Agosta to Cremona in search of a the Stradivarius violin nicknamed "Stormcloud." This violin was long thought lost because the virtuoso who had it last did not have it on his person upon his death. (As a fan of violin music, especially that of Sibelius, I found this part especially interesting and educational as the authors, in the person of Count Fosco, expound on the violin's history and what makes Stradivarius violins so special.) This results in a dead monk and unearths a information that lends more evidence to the Devil theory.

This historical section, along with discussions of the golden ratio and how it pertains to the end of the world, cement the authors' reputation as the premier writers of intellectual thrillers. But they don't stint on the romantic angle, although they make an unexpected choice for D'Agosta and Hayward's first "date" (I'll say this for D'Agosta: he sure knows how to get his paperwork pushed through).

It's probably because the producers attempted to distill (with the assistance of Andrew Loschert) the essence of a 700-page novel into six hours of listening, but the abridged audiobook of Brimstone seems to jump around a lot. I actually had trouble sometimes keeping up with what was happening, the scene would change so quickly. There's simply too much story for a successful abridgment. Strangely enough, this inhibited the pleasure of the experience only a little due to the power of the writing and the solidity of the characters, and I leapt right into Dance of Death with eagerness.

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