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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

White Fire by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Grand Central Publishing, 384 pages, $27

It is a fine line in the Pendergast family whether a member will be a killer or a catcher. FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is a catcher. He specializes in catching serial killers. Other books in the Pendergast series deal with the other, not as salubrious aspect of the family. Authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created a mysterious, almost superhuman hero to deal with the sadness and sickness in the world.

White Fire features Corrie Swanson, Pendergast’s unofficial ward. She first appeared in Still Life With Crows. In White Fire she takes center stage as a 20-year-old student of forensic criminology at John Jay College. To win a prestigious award at school, she has developed a plan to examine the bones of miners who may have been killed in the 1870s by a grizzly bear in a silver mining community in Colorado. Since it’s a Preston/Child book, of course murder and mayhem (along with torture, grisliness, and don’t-go-down-into-the-dark-mine moments) ensue from this scholarly pursuit.

The genesis of Corrie’s thesis idea comes from a kindly archivist in criminal records who has espied an entry in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s diary about a conversation he had with Oscar Wilde. Unlikely as it seems, on a speaking tour of America, Wilde landed at one point in a isolated mining settlement in Roaring Forks, Colorado. It is Doyle who briefly outlines Wilde’s story of the murdered miners. That isn’t the only Doyle connection. Aside from the obvious homage that Preston and Child pay by patterning Pendergast after Sherlock Holmes, Doyle and Sherlock play a big role in White Fire. Preston and Childs’ books are an odd combination of thrill, humor, fantasy, grimness, and more serial killer information than is comfortable. The tone of the books bounces all over, but it isn’t annoying. Rather, it’s intriguing and challenging. In this book the authors’ ability to intrigue hits a high note with a Sherlock Holmes pastiche inserted towards the end of the book. It is a pitch-perfect counterfeit Holmes story, “The Adventure of Aspern Hall,” that provides Corrie and Pendergast with a crucial clue.

It isn’t just dry bones and winter weather that carries the story. There’s a current-day arsonist loose in Roaring Forks, which, by the way, is no longer a hayseed mining community but a fancy-schmancy resort for billionaires. Fancy-schmancy homes have been bursting into flames. The tortured bodies of the residents have been found in the wreckage.

The only unfortunate note in this entertaining story is the pigheaded nature of Corrie Swanson. She’s too intent on doing everything her way, and her arrogance betrays her. She is the ultimate dumb bunny (DB) who insists on going into the dark basement/haunted house/forest/beach when she hears noises. Don’t go, the audience screams, but the DB never listens. Warned by everyone and his uncle not to do this, go there, investigate that, Corrie still does, goes, and investigates. She’s always contrite and she always has to be rescued. Her hair-trigger temper doesn’t help. She’s always contrite about that as well. There wouldn’t have been much of story without her doing, going, and investigating, but she sacrificed some of her charm for her intransigence. Here she is in a nutshell:

…[I]t was vintage Corrie, with her temper and her long-standing inability to suffer jerks. That behavior might have worked in Medicine Creek, when she was still a rebellious high-school student. But there was no excusing it anymore — not here, and not now. She simply had to stop lashing out at people — especially when she knew all too well that it was counterproductive to her own best interests.

It’s a good thing that some of Corrie’s screw-loose activities have brought Pendergast into town, just in time to help the beleaguered small-town police chief with the arsonist. 

While I highly recommend this book, especially for the gem of a Holmes pastiche, here’s the warning label that should appear on the cover: Children and an animal are harmed in gruesome fashion.

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