FBI Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast operates far outside the Bureau’s jurisdiction and regulations. Wealthy beyond counting with highly-placed allies owing him supreme loyalty, he uses his badge to facilitate rogue and proprietary missions. His obsession is solving the murder of his wife, Helen, and his target is her brother, Dr. Judson Esterhazy. In this latest installment of the Pendergast saga by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the two men are linked like Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.
The action moves from the moors of Scotland to the bayous of Louisiana, from frozen Camden, Maine, to steamy Malfourche, Miss., from a plantation in St. Charles Parish to a mansion in Savannah, from government computers in Washington to a hacker’s computers in Cleveland. Preston and Child fix each setting through multiple senses: “rising tendrils of mist, which carried upward the faint smell of decomposition and swamp gas mingled with the sickly scent of overblooming heather.” They endow even the minor characters with telling dialogue: “What country you suppose he was from?” “Europe.”
Of course, the greatest effort goes to the many-layered Pendergast. He is the last of a mysterious Anglo-French New Orleans family, feared and therefore hated. He has the training of a samurai, master of hand-to-hand combat, skilled with many weapons. He has the esoteric learning of a Tibetan monk, entering the minds of others through the “heightened mental state of stong pa nyid.” He has no scruples: “I am a desperate man. ? I am operating beyond the rules. I will do anything - lie, coerce, and deceive - to force you to cooperate.” Rules are for lesser beings, hoi polloi.”
Although this series had many devotees, Preston and Child are an acquired taste. The prose is often ornate and overblown. The plot is literally incredible - the proof comes in the Nazi angle. The principal characters, Pendergast and Esterhazy, both have preternatural abilities - except when they must fail to permit the action to continue.
Did Preston and Child learn to write from watching “The Perils of Pauline”? And do they believe that Pendergast deserves a pardon for his crimes because they are committed in the effort to solve greater crimes?
One possible answer comes in the comment from Pendergast’s long-dead brother, Diogenes: “The day will come when we shall, all of us Pendergasts, join hands in a great family reunion in the lowest circle of hell. What a party that will be!”
By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Grand Central Publishing, $26.99; 356 pp.