by Sharon Tucker
Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society, and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart. —Salman Rushdie
Remember the femjep 1997 movie The Relic? It was loosely based on the first novel of the same name in a best-selling series written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I say “loosely based” because the screenwriters left out one of, if not the main, character in all the books: Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, maverick FBI agent and all-around best person to have on your side in any kind of fight. It’s still a relatively good movie because a monster on the loose in a large museum, replete with departments in house to figure out who or what the creature is on the basis of anthropology, evolutionary biology, and genetics, sounds intriguing.
I have been in the mood for sensational reads of late. It’s therapeutic to read about battling and winning the fight against a malevolent creature when we have so much going on in society that a clean fight won’t fix. There’s the pandemic we cannot escape and politics we can’t stomach, so, when I scrolled past Lincoln and Childs’ Brimstone (2004), I gave it a try. I soon realized that essentially the same plot continued in Dance of Death (2005), and The Book of the Dead (2006), so, of course, I had to keep reading. Brimstone has characters that I liked and plots that stretched the imagination, but the writing style was what grabbed me: uncluttered and imaginative. I was in and ready to proceed.
Brimstone, the first in the Diogenes Trilogy, has Agent Pendergast and Sgt. Vincent D’Agosta (also a major character in the Pendergast novels) investigating a bizarre death at a Long Island estate. The victim is discovered, a burned out shell, with the marks of a cloven hoof burned into the wooden floor near him. The overwhelming odor of Sulphur permeating the whole house leads the first on the scene down an obvious path that both fascinates and repels. D’Agosta’s career has faltered a bit due to his leaving the force to write novels which it turned out didn’t fly. He’s now lingering in a small police department on Long Island, New York, and getting cranky with a tourist blathering on about feeding the ducks on the abandoned estate when that tourist turns out to be—Pendergast—a bit under a cloud with the FBI as well. The victim in the case was Jeremy Grove, a renowned, if vicious, art critic, part of an elite group of well-known, moneyed, successful New York figures. When odd things continue going on in Grove’s circle and more deaths ensue, the prevalent odor of Sulphur at every crime scene links them unpleasantly together. Here, too, we learn of the ongoing struggle between Agent Pendergast and his mad brother as a riff resembling Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes but with a difference.
One of the best things about reading a series is better getting to know its protagonist and other characters we have grown fond of, old and new from novel to novel. In this second of the Diogenes Trilogy, The Dance of Death, we see Diogenes and Aloysius Pendergast more intimately indeed. Agent Pendergast, who comes awkwardly close to being a paragon in the previous novels, reveals himself as quite human here, and who should be the agent of this revelation but his brother, Diogenes? Think of a combination of Moriarty and Mycroft Homes and you may be getting into the territory of Diogenes Pendergast. The story begins with the agonized death of a friend and mentor of Agent Pendergast in front of a packed lecture hall. We last saw Agent Pendergast sacrificing himself (for an excellent cause) in Italy. He has been given up for dead and has left a letter asking that D’Agosta take on the case to prevent Diogenes from whatever crimes he will commit to even the score he has imagined must be settled. How can D’Agosta begin to investigate? Will this vendetta include D’Agosta or any of the friends we have met in the previous novels? And…is Agent Pendergast really even dead?
Of course, Pendergast is not dead. The Book of the Dead reveals what has become of Agent Pendergast as well as the utter impossibility of his escaping from the elaborate trap Diogenes has forged to eliminate him once and for all. Meanwhile at the museum, a mysterious benefactor has financed the re-mounting of a long forgotten exhibit, the tomb of an Egyptian potentate replete with a curse. Then the murders begin.
If you are particularly fond of procedurals and Golden Age mysteries, consider these initially fantastic multi-threaded thrillers that get a bit lurid from time to time and see if the author(s) solve the problem and prove their premises successfully. The Pendergast novels do that for me, so far. I started with book five, six, and seven as listed above and now have gone back to read them in order from the beginning. Since there are twenty books in the series so far, I look forward to seeing how the characters develop, who lives and who doesn’t, and all the new plots coming my way.
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