The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Cabinet of Curiosities features many of the hallmarks of a Preston and Child novel. First, the lead is FBI Agent Pendergast. Special Agent Pendergast has three things that no FBI Special Agent in the history of the FBI has ever had: 1.) a fortune, 2.) the ability to pick and choose both his assignments and the jurisdiction he works in, and 3.) about 200 vacation days a year to learn things like ikebana and to read random scholarly publications in disparate fields such that he is an expert on the known Universe.
Regardless of the incredulity his character may inspire, Pendergast is a fascinating character. He has a New Orleans accent and an almost albino complexion, which intrigues–and puts him outside the New York / Chicago/ LA nexus in which cop fiction frequently gets stuck. (Don’t worry; the NYPD quota is still met.) Furthermore, his encyclopedic knowledge of everything allows him to constantly get the better of any and all unlikable characters in the book—and, in these books, you are either likable or loathable. It also features other Preston & Child familiars, including Nora Kelly and William Smithback Jr.
Second, it features the supernatural, preternatural, or at least the appearance of the aforementioned. This is all part of a dark and mysterious tone they have down to an art. This goes back to their first book Relic.
Third, one of the likable characters gets killed off.
The title, Cabinet of Curiosities, refers to collections of natural anomalies that were all the rage in the 19th century, and which served as mini museums of natural history. These cabinets (sometimes also called “wonder rooms”) might feature genuine exhibits, fakes, or some combinations thereof.
The novel begins with Agent Pendergast seeking Nora Kelly’s expertise to assist him in investigating a 19th century mass murder. The remains of the deceased were found in a building that’s being torn down to put up a high-rise, but it used to be the basement of a cabinet of curiosities.
We don’t get any clue as to why an active duty FBI agent would take an interest in 19th century murders until late in the book. [Of course, we never find out why Pendergast is allowed to investigate it.] I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether the ultimate explanation makes any sense or not. Needless to say, the murder and mayhem come to the present day over the course of the novel.
While I might sound down on both this book and the series, I’ve read seven of the books jointly authored by Preston and Child (and one or two from each as solo authors.) It’s, therefore, unreasonable to say that I dislike their work. However, I will say that I didn’t like this one as much as some others (e.g. Relic and Still Life with Crows.) I’m not entirely certain whether this one was just not as good, or whether I’ve become a bit jaded from over exposure to their formula. (Maybe doing so many book reviews of late has made me over analytical, and commercial fiction—like popular movies—are easy pickin’s for criticism.)
That said, I have three major criticisms of this book:
First, there’s a critical happening that requires someone so brilliant (yet unknown and working solo) that they could invented a technology in the 19th century that modern scientists couldn’t even fathom duplicating. This is sort of a common theme in some steampunk works (e.g. the Will Smith Wild, Wild West movie). However, steampunk creates its own world, distinct from the world as we know it. I can buy some kinds of “lost knowledge” lines, such as the idea that some plant-based medicinal compounds have been lost due to deforestation and loss of the experience of native peoples (this was the premise in Preston’s solo work, The Codex). However, in Cabinet of Curiosities there is a scientific discovery critical to this novel which is of a complex nature. It’s impossible to believe that it could be done by someone without modern equipment or access to the vast scientific literature of the intervening century.
Second, while I don’t want to sound like someone who poo-poos cross-genre novels, there’s a problem with this book not knowing whether it’s a mystery/thriller or supernatural/horror. In general, I love cross-genre work. However, a thriller needs some sort of realism to pull us in and mysteries call for some sort of rules or the game. If anything can happen (or if we don’t know the rules of what can happen) it’s a bit unsatisfying to try to noodle out whodunit.
Third, the reveal of the villain seems a bit forced. It’s not quite Scooby-Doo because they create several despicable characters to choose from—and not just one grumpy old man who you know is going to be the guy. However, it seems a little like they rolled dice to determine which detestable character would be the villain. In retrospect one can find foreshadowing, but no more for the actual villain then for the others one might suspect.
If you’re willing to suspend a truckload of credulity this is a good read for beaches, airports, and trains. The authors know how to pique your interest and build tension. It’s not their smartest book, but it’s a fast and fun read.
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