Book Review: The Cabinet of Curiosities

The Cabinet of Curiosities, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Grand Central Publishing. 2002. Paperback. 626pgs. $6.

I read as often as I can, as much as I can. In my younger years of the 1970s and 80s, in middle school and high school, I would push my dirty clothes against the bottom of my bedroom door to prevent light from spilling out in the hallway and betraying my late-night reading. I might read with a desk lamp or flashlight until 2 or 3 am. In a pinch, moonlight would work for a little while. I was really hard to get up and get ready for school.

I read crime novels even then, Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, and Encyclopedia Brown. And, I have to admit, after I read through all of the Hardy Boy mysteries I tried a few Nancy Drew mysteries. Not my style.

Science fiction and fantasy were my staple. Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov were my favorite authors. “Are”…are three of my favorite authors. Anne McCaffery, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks, Stephen R Donaldson, Orson Scott Card (before he was cool and then uncool), Katherine Kurtz, and Frank Herbert are my best friends. At least, their works kept me company most every day of my life.

I have found other authors who I really enjoy, though read less fantasy these days. Today, I read economics, cosmology and quantum physics books, books like “When China Rules the World,” and “American Nations.” I still enjoy a good crime novel in the vein of Steig Larrson, authors like James Lee Burke, Jo Nesbo, and Patricia Cornwell. When I want science fiction, Jack McDevitt, Ben Bova, and John Scalzi get read.

To review a book, people need some background in reading books, and the above is my vitae, my resume of sorts, of what qualifies me to review a book. I have a few hours in English, mostly American literature with some experience in non-Shakespearean literature, and in the history of the English language. Any oversights, omissions, or lack of depth in reviews are purely my own, of course.

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“The Cabinet of Curiosities” caught my eye as the authors were featured on NPR. The book cover proclaims, “Selected as one of the 100 best thrillers ever by NPR.” Such an accolade I could not pass up when I saw the book available on Wal-marts bookshelf. And, at $6 buying the book was a no-brainer. Also, I’m a sucker for large books.

**Warning** I may give away a few plots details, i.e. spoilers, so you may want to stop reading.

At the onset, I found myself enjoying the book. Pace of action was interesting, characters were likable, especially Pendergast. I found myself wanting to know more about his background. I understand the novel is #3 in a series of novels which feature FBI Special Agent Pendergast.

The geography of novels I really appreciate. Knowing I could go to places and walk the same sidewalks, or driving the same backroads as characters really pulls me into a novel. Many times, I will call up Google Earth or Google Maps and walk the same walk, or imagine myself driving between the same locations described in the book. Today, with Google StreetView, a reader can see the actual locations of fictional action. James Lee Burke does a brilliant job of weaving local geography into all of his Dave Roubicheau novels. Makes me want to go live there.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child do a commendable job of building the geography of New York City into the third Pendergast novel. The map above illustrates the location of action revealed late in the novel. My recommendation is to visit Google StreetView and you, too, can walk the same sidewalks as Dr. Nora Kelly and FBI Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast.

The authors point out in their Acknowledgements the “topography of New York City” was “altered” to “suit the demands of the story.” Few authors come right out and state how geography influences the story, or the liberties taken with geography within the story. I appreciate those comments.

“The Cabinet of Curiosities” follows archaeologist Dr. Nora Kelly and FBI Agent Pendergast in their pursuit of a serial killer. The killings are particularly gruesome, even as far as crime noir is concerned. Details of the deaths are precise and graphic and might induce queasiness. You have been warned.

In “Many Worms,” Chapter 9, discusses how the team pursuing the killer is attempting to determine the killer’s range. The killer requires certain chemicals and the team maps locations of chemists and places selling specialty chemicals on a map. Today, mapping of crimes is a common use of modern mapping systems at all levels of law enforcement.

In “Horse’s Tail,” Chapter 4, police officer Patrick O’Shaughnessy (typecasting?) finds himself not far from the home of an early victim.

“The setting sun broke through the clouds, casting his own shadow before him, long and lonely down the street. To his left lay the South Street Viaduct, and, beyond, the East River piers.

Geography is an intrinsic part of setting the stage for impending action. Later, Officer O’Shaughnessy would use his knowledge of the local geography to his advantage. Yet, eventually, even his knowledge of the local geography would not assist him.

I was really prepared to enjoy the novel. I enjoyed the characters, the plot, the setup, the pace of action, the dialogue, and as many readers of crime fiction enjoy, the sense I was part of the investigation. The revealing of clues, details, of evidence brings the reader into the case, makes the reader part of the team. A few details bothered me. While performing some research into early murders in New York City, a comment was made about how infrequent murders were in the late 1800s, and when a murder did occur, the news was front page. On the next page, the researcher comments about murders being “everyday” and how time-consuming looking for a particular murder had become. But, no book is completely congruent. I do expect the authors to follow ‘rules’ or ‘guidelines’ and creating a logically consistent plot within the confines of the story.

And, then, 1/3rd or so into the book, the authors employ a plot device which almost resulted in me throwing the book away. Crime novels are crime novels for a reason. Typically, one or more protagonists become focused on one or more antagonists. Page after page, the protagonists discover evidence, and little by little evidence is revealed. Plot twists and thoughtful, thought-provoking storylines are appreciated, as long as those twists are logically consistent and have a reasonable application.

Pendergast employes a form of self-hypnosis, learned from a Bhutanese Buddhist and adapted from solving crimes. “Memory crossing” involves developing a state of extreme relaxation, breathing, and in the case of Pendergast, thinking about chess pieces and a simulated chess match. Eventually, a mental state is achieved which allows Pendergast to enter into a past time or place. Pendergast is then able to walk through the place and interact with people as if he had traveled through time. The culmination of one of these “memory crossings” resulted in significant information which affected the course of the investigation, culminating in the identification of the killer, location of the killing site, and a host of other details.

I found the “memory crossing” device simply cheating, pure and simple. I bought the book thinking I was getting a crime novel similar to Karen Slaughter or Jo Nesbo or Michael Connelly. Nope.

“The Cabinet of Curiosities” is more like “The X-Files” meets “Bones” if Brennan was still Brennan but Booth could “divine” evidence, setting, and other details of crimes by putting himself into trace-like state.

Readers who like the macabre and don’t mind the employment of plot devices which reveal significant criminal actions instead of hard detective work and building a case through evidence discovery, then the book might be enjoyable. I personally feel like a “bait and switch” was pulled.

Now, familiar with the plot device used to divine information, the next Pendergast book I read – if I read one – won’t come as a surprise. I just won’t read the novel as a procedural crime novel; more of a macabre mystery/suspense/psuedo-paranormal crime fiction. My attitude might have been different had I known in advance I was not reading a procedural crime novel and Pendergast had more in common with Lamont Cranston (The Shadow) than Seeley Booth.

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