Monday, December 29, 2008

Book: The Cabinet of Curiosities

Fun, fun, fun. What a perfect post-holiday book.

I've been saving this book for a couple of months, waiting for a time when I could just settle in and enjoy it. The time finally came.

As you may recall, I have a slight addiction to the Preston/Child thriller novels. They're spooky, silly, wonderful light-ish reading with a fantastic character, Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast. This is Book 3 featuring Pendergast, so it was going back in time a bit for me. But it didn't matter, the book was still really fun.

Set partially in the New York Museum of Natural History (clearly modeled off the American Museum of Natural History) and on the streets of New York, both modern and late 1800s, this book, placed in the middle of the Pendergast series, is pretty darn near perfect for what it is. The first two Pendergast novels, Relic and Reliquary, were okay but it was clear the authors were just warming up. The latest novel in the series, Wheel of Darkness, was pretty pointless, definitely a filler tossed off while they worked on whatever their next book is. However, the middle books seem to be pretty great. I think that Cabinet and Still Life With Crows are my two favorites from the series.

Anyway, something about this book made me think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Perhaps it was all the history of the late 1800s in dark New York, full of tenements and crude entertainments, and madmen perfecting dubious scientific procedures. Perhaps it was The Surgeon (the killer in this novel), in his derby hat and secretive ways. Whatever it was, it was effective. This book was dark and wonderfully straightforward about the vileness of the killer. His aim? To extend life, indefinitely. His method? A barbaric surgical procedure on innocent victims, particularly painful and gruesome, to extract the key ingredient in his elixir.

Throughout, wonderful bits of history about the semi-fictional museum and how it began from collections of natural history "Cabinets of Curiosities" from the founding members kept the story interesting and full of fun details. The characters were lively and, with a few exceptions, not overly predicitable. One main exception, the police chief guy, was deliciously stupid and set himself up for a wonderful fall. Obviously silly and funny, I snickered my way through that part. Maybe it's my tired brain but that sort of schadenfreude humor was perfect.

Anyway. The star, as usual, was Agent Pendergast, but in a particularly flawed and vulnerable role. He is too close to this case and makes a number of uncharacteristic near-fatal mistakes. The seemingly invulnerable agent is wounded badly a number of times and I must confess I felt worried, depsite knowing that he goes on to have innumerable fantastic adventures later. In this book, we are just starting to get a glimpse of his amazing charming quirkiness and his incredibly disturbing family legacy. This quirkiness is brought to full in Still Life With Crows, which is what makes that book so much fun. In my head, Pendergast is something of a mix between Howard Roark, James Bond, and Max Headroom.

And who wouldn't want to read about a guy like that?

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