Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dance of Death by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (book two of the Diogenes Pendergast trilogy)

Professor Hamilton's class sits paralyzed with horror as he stops in the middle of his lecture on T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land to begin clawing at his face, drawing blood, and screaming, "Get them off me." Elsewhere, Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta is making dinner for Captain Laura Hayward when he is summoned by Constance Greene to her home. Her guardian, Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast, has not been heard from since the events of Brimstone six weeks prior.

Assuming Pendergast dead, Constance gives D'Agosta a note Pendergast left for him. It passes on the responsibility of stopping his brother Diogenes from committing the "perfect crime" by January 28, a week away. D'Agosta's first task is to visit Pendergast's great aunt Cornelia (definitely one of the more interesting supporting characters in the series) to get info on Diogenes and the family, including a few intimate tidbits about Pendergast himself (reminding us that he is the "normal" one in his family only by comparison).

Information comes from a most unexpected source that Diogenes plans to kill everyone who was close to Aloysius — and that could easily include D'Agosta himself. But D'Agosta discovers that Diogenes has something even worse in mind, when he goes to a meeting with Hayward.

Meanwhile, newlyweds Nora Kelly and Bill Smithback (just back from the honeymoon that took place during Brimstone) are returning to work conflicts. Smithback's beat is being slowly abdicated by his fellow New York Times reporter, up and comer Bryce Harriman. And at the New York Museum of History, Nora's opinion (on whether to return a religious artifact to the tribe that sold it to the museum 130 years ago) differs from that of another returning employee, Margo Green, new editor of the museum's newsletter, Museology. Neither has any idea what's really in store for them.

In Brimstone, authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child briefly introduced readers to Agent Pendergast's brother Diogenes, who features largely in Dance of Death. We are not surprised to learn that Diogenes is criminally insane (since we learned in The Cabinet of Curiosities that insanity runs rampant throughout the Pendergast lineage, sometimes beneficially but usually not). So, 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.)

Making the crime personal this time around gives Dance of Death a greater emotional resonance and gets the reader more deeply involved. This makes the book more fully entertaining than the events in its predecessor (not least due to the absence of the labyrinthine plot that made Brimstone hard to follow). I would even say that readers interested mostly in the character of Diogenes could feel free to skip Brimstone and move right on to Dance of Death, since all the information needed to proceed is reintroduced.

Dance of Death does not suffer from the usual problems of the middle book of a trilogy. It stands alone, and in fact it improves on its predecessor by focusing on character over plot. We learn about Diogenes as an individual and not just his machinations (as the authors did with Count Fosco in Brimstone). And those who get caught up in the story will be glad to know that it concludes masterfully in the third book, The Book of the Dead.

After the end of the story, the Dance of Death audiobook also includes a short interview given by Preston and Child with Agent Pendergast (given prior to the events of the book, they are careful to say). In it, the subject (voiced by audiobook reader Rene Auberjonois) proves to be very Holmesian indeed in his responses to the authors' "vapid queries," including a comment accusing the authors of having "sensationalized" his cases.

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