Seriously? His Initials Are A. X. L.?

I’m a pretty loyal reader of the books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I happened to pick up their first novel, The Relic when it first came out in paperback while I was working at Waldenbooks on the recommendation of a patron. It was fantastic: Exactly the kind of book I love to read. When asked what kinds of books I prefer to read I usually answer “Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror” and it just so happens that The Relic is a masterful blend of all three.

After the first book they put out a couple of others including a somewhat disappointing sequel to The Relic called Reliquary and a standalone novel entitled Mount Dragon but neither really matched the initial brilliance of The Relic.

The authors seemed to want to branch out and try writing different kinds of stories using new and interesting characters (one of Mount Dragon’s greatest failings was that its characters were nowhere near as memorable as those in The Relic) but were struggling to do so. Gradually the authors began to get a little bit better with their standalone work and they managed to sneak a few recurring characters from The Relic into later novels without making them full sequels or even really requiring the reader to have finished The Relic to enjoy the books.

But gradually it became apparent that the fan favorite from The Relic, Special Agent Pendergast (who was unceremoniously and idiotically excised from the agonizingly stupid film adaptation), was the star of the Preston/Child show. And so the duo began writing books that pulled a few key characters from previous standalone novels into a cohesive cast and put Pendergast right up front as the leading man.

They still tried hard to maintain the illusion of the self-contained novel. It’s interesting to read a title like Still Life With Crows where you can see them struggling to try and use Pendergast in a capacity away from the Museum of Natural History in New York where The Relic, Reliquary and many later books take place (or at least provide employment to a large percentage of major recurring characters). After several of these it seems that Preston and Child have finally realized that Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast is their man and they should stop trying to deny that longtime readers will tolerate but not necessarily appreciate novels which do not feature him prominently.

The last three books have focused so intently on Pendergast that the authors have taken to calling it the “Pendergast Trilogy,” something that would be acceptable if I still had delusions that it would not stretch into a “Pendergast Tetralogy” and then the “Pendergast Pentalogy” and so on. But it will, and I’m wary of this.

What struck me as significant in the most recent book (The Book of the Dead) is that the authors have moved so far into dealing with the life and times of Agent Pendergast that they have almost stopped really worrying about having new mysteries to solve and new strange-b ut-explainable circumstances that have served as the hallmark of their previous work. In this case the passing references to and sketchy outline of an Egyptian curse are barely developed as we spend far more time reading about Pendergast’s time in prison (long story) such that when he finally steps outside the prison walls it takes him all of half an hour to solve the case.

The most telling part of the whole book is that once the “plot” is sufficiently resolved, there are still roughly 100 pages left of a very extended epilogue which—if my wishes come true—finally wrap up the Evil Brother plotline that followed through the “Pendergast Trilogy.” It isn’t that The Book of the Dead is a bad book, it is that it so clearly reveals that the authors have let Pendergast as a protagonist become the story himself to the detriment of their real skill which is in their well-reasoned techno-thriller mystery hooks. I finished the book more or less satisfied but I honestly hope that the next novel shows a return to form with Pendergast there only to solve the mystery and not to be the mystery.

I mean, if I wanted to read a million pages of character-driven soap opera with some passing nods to my favorite genres, I’d go back and read The Wheel of Time again.

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