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Still Life With Crows

by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Time Warner

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-446-53142-1

Publication Date: 07-15-2003

435 Pages; $25.95

Date Reviewed: 08-05-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Horror, Mystery

Writers with a great series character can provide a lot of enjoyment for readers just by trotting out the man or woman of the hour and letting them strut their stuff. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child first came into my radar with 'Relic', a monster-in-the-museum story that featured FBI Agent Pendergast, a sort of southern gentleman gene splice of Sherlock Holmes and Agent Mulder. Last year, they brought him around for a bit of rip-roaring entertainment in 'The Cabinet of Curiosities'. I enjoyed that book so much I was a bit disappointed when I saw Lincoln Child's solo effort, 'Utopia', as I thought it might mean we wouldn't get another Pendergast novel. Well, we didn't get one in time for Father's Day, but your Labor Day reading may be a bit on the labored side. 'Still Life With Crows' shows Pendergast in his finest form yet, but his adversary and environment lack the complexity of the previous effort.

As the novel begins, Sheriff Dent Hazen of Medicine Creek, Kansas, uncovers a horrific murder scene in a cornfield. The victim has been sliced, diced and placed in an exhibit of antique arrows. It's all too reminiscent of an old legend about Indian killings in the shadows of the wild, wild westward expansion. Before Hazen has time to break out the Bat Signal, the funereal Agent Pendergast arrives. It's the first of a series of killings -- and a damn good opportunity for a vacation, Pendergast declares, offering his help to the officious but initially grateful Hazen. Pendergast hires the town Goth girl, Corrie as his assistant to drive him around and give him the unvarnished goods on the town. Much unpleasantness follows for all involved, except the reader, who is likely to enjoy Pendgergast's company even when he's just slumming.

If you're asking yourself, "Do Preston and Child have the chutzpah to resurrect the old Indian Graveyard cliché?", the answer is well -- sort of. Do they do it successfully? Well, sort of. The real pleasure of 'Still Life With Crows' lies in the characters. Pendergast is always fun when he's on stage, which isn't quite often enough. But Sheriff Hazen, who proves to be something of an "asshole" (yes, I'm quoting the novel) is drawn quite nicely, unlikable but understandable. Corrie quickly outfoxes your Goth Girl expectations and since she's Pendergast's sidekick, while she's around Pendergast is usually around. Their interaction is really a kick. Preston and Child even offer a sly jab at their own writing, since Corrie is reading a cheesy thriller titled 'Beyond the Ice Limit', which of course bears no resemblance to their novel 'The Ice Limit'.

The decision to move the action from New Yawk to Kansas seems questionable at first, but Preston and Child handle this like the pros they are. They get the atmosphere and landscape just right. They're great at setting the scene, and the town of Medicine Creek comes to life in the reader's head. To my mind, the obligatory thunderstorm and tornado threat that close the novel are fairly unnecessary, and trend the action away from Movie Theater Quality and into Movie of the Week territory. But their scientific slang slinging at least keeps things entertaining and crisp.

Still, a serial killer novel thrives on the quality of the serial killer. It's a very hard patch to nail, because on one hand, we've all had it up to here with serial killers who have complex motives and all these weird rituals that relate to childhood traumas. I'm well past eye-rolling when it comes to these sorts of shenanigans. We've all heard about organized and disorganized serial killers till we're blue in the face. Give Lincoln and Child credit for doing something sort of different here, and for efficiently escalating the terror. I enjoyed the whole ride -- I read the book in two days -- but when the final curtain was pulled aside, I felt the bitter pang of disappointment. Yet, there's a turn in the final pages that will surely give the reader a good -- and intended -- laugh.

Interludes in 'Still Life With Crows' pull back to some storylines originating in 'The Cabinet of Curiosities' along the way, giving the reader hope that Preston and Child will get back to the complex, baroque material that made that novel so much fun. Pendergast is clearly a compelling character who deserves more time in his own novels. If you'll take what you can get and be thankful for it, then you'll be thankful for this novel. It's certainly not a good place to start -- 'Relic' and 'The Cabinet of Curiosities' are required prequels -- and clearly not the place where the series will end. Pendergast fans will want to sign up for this ride, but they're likely to get off hoping the next one will be better.