Literature Commentary: Dance of Death, The Book of the Dead

31 Aug

(Originally published March 7, 2009)

I like suspense novels. For those of you who have been reading my literature commentaries and noticed this general trend, this’ll come as no surprise. Suspense/thriller stories are the “snacks” in between the complex literary “meals” such as “Moby-Dick” or “Bleak House.” After reading Plato’s “Republic” this past week, I treated myself to a pair of suspense novels from two of my favorite thriller authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Informally known as the “Pendergast books” these two titles – “Dance of Death” and “The Book of the Dead” – tell the story of FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, an enigmatic, haunted figure with remarkable deductive abilities. (Think Sherlock Holmes with a skeleton in his closet). Pendergast was a secondary character in several of Preston and Child’s other books, including “Relic” and “Reliquary.”

As “Dance of Death” opens, Pendergast is presumed dead following an encounter with a crazed Italian count. Gruesome murders begin to threaten the peace of New York City…murders committed by a mysterious killer of extraordinary brilliance. As the book continues, it becomes clear that Pendergast’s own brother – Diogenes – is the one responsible for the murders, and is bent on avenging himself upon his brother for some long-ago wrong. Now, it’s up to an NYPD lieutenant and Pendergast himself to stop Diogenes before he strikes again…

Preston and Child are truly in top form. “Dance of Death” and “The Book of the Dead” are far-and-away their best works – truly suspenseful adventures with baffling twists and turns. The story proceeds at a lightning-fast pace that leaves the reader breathless, culminating in a series of confrontations that are both gripping and chilling.

The books’ best element, though, is the conflict between Pendergast and Diogenes. Their battle of minds – and Pendergast’s struggle with his own dark impulses – creates an intriguing blend of murder mystery and psychological horror story. Fans of “The Joker” will not be disappointed in Diogenes – one of the most terrifying villains ever conceived.

The body count is expectably high. Diogenes shoots, hangs, eviscerates, stabs, and tortures his victims in a jarring onslaught of the macabre. His methods are undeniably creative, which makes them even more disturbing. Gore flows profusely, veering occasionally towards the gratuitous. (Sensitive or easily disturbed readers will probably be scarred for life…especially by some of the scenes in “The Book of the Dead”). This is the stuff of nightmares, after all.

An unfortunate trend in many crime novels is the inclusion of “realistic” language – and these stories are no exception. A rough estimate would put the total number of profanities (contained in two 450-page books) at somewhere around 700 or 800, including misuses of the Lord’s name. And, even more unfortunately, the f-word is often included among these. This level of foul language – and the deluge of brutal violence – will likely put these novels off-limits for many readers.

Underlying themes? More than you might expect from a story of this genre. (To further explore these underpinnings, I’ll have to borrow some insights from other stories involving Agent Pendergast).

The depravity of man is displayed with horrifying clarity. Diogenes is, effectively, the devil personified – an inhuman butcher with no sense of conscience or morality. His cold brilliance, unconstrained by a sense of right and wrong, makes him a truly nightmarish character. Pendergast obviously struggles with his own desire towards evil, living out the old saying “there but for the grace of God go I.” Man’s imperfect, easily corruptible nature is the centerpiece of these two stories.

Pendergast’s own religious beliefs are a mystery. He displays some affinity towards Zen Buddhism, but employs meditation techniques more as an exercise in mental discipline than as a religious ritual – in other books, he professes not to believe in miracles, but only in science. Nevertheless, the Christian church is generally portrayed in a positive light throughout Preston and Child’s works. Reference is made to the healing power of prayer and the emptiness of a world without right or wrong. Also, subsequent books contain a prominent pro-life message.

So, would I recommend these books? It depends.

On one hand, “Dance of Death” and “The Book of the Dead” are saturated with strong violence and contain a large amount of bad language. The presence of so much language is unfortunate. The violence, while somewhat less brutal than “Relic” or “Reliquary”, is still disturbing, especially in a more realistic context. Readers may find themselves becoming desensitized to the amount of gore after Diogenes’ fourth or fifth killing – not such a good thing.

On the other hand, these books say some interesting things about depravity, revenge, guilt, and morality. Both are eminently memorable stories in that regard – readers will likely identify with Pendergast and his own battle against himself. He’s an innocent man attempting to do the right thing while fighting against unspeakable evil – and simultaneously trying to overcome his own dark desires.

Overall…I would recommend these novels to readers who are familiar with the thriller genre and aren’t excessively bothered by descriptions of murders. And these books are undeniably well written. “The Book of the Dead” kept me up late after the mock trial tournament this weekend. Anyone else…might want to think twice.

These books kept my eyes glued to the page. Great reading for fans of suspense novels – but only those who have VERY strong stomachs.

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Thrillers


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