Two Graves is the finale to what the authors are calling “The Helen Trilogy”. This somewhat standalone trilogy within the multiple volume Pendergast series began with Fever Dream continued with Cold Vengeance and now ends with Two Graves. It is highly recommended to read at least the preceding two books before this one if you want to have any hope of understanding what is going on. Even having read the earlier books I was often left baffled and confused by the bizarre turn of events. The authors – to their credit or detriment I’m not sure – seemed to realize the sprawling story they are telling is unwieldy. At least twice in Two Graves a character will sum up all that has happened so far. Spoilers abound for the first two books, I’ll try to keep them to a minimum for Two Graves but this is not the book to start on if you have never read a Preston & Child book before.
Two Graves begins right where Cold Vengeance ended; with an ambush in Central Park on Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast just as he is reunited with his long thought dead wife, Helen. Helen is kidnapped and for the first few chapters Pendergast gives chase before a showdown in the desert of Mexico. After this breakneck start the narrative slows down to catch us up on the other characters. Meanwhile, a murderer starts stalking guests in New York City hotels and arranging the bodies in horrifying tableau. The killer seems to be taunting someone and soon enough Pendergast, NYPD Lt. Vincent D’Agosta, and all the other regulars are trying to solve the mystery of the diabolical Hotel Killer. When Pendergast learns he has a family connection to the killer he embarks on a mission of both rescue and revenge taking him to the heart of the Brazilian jungle for a final showdown with the organization responsible for the many calamities that had recently befallen Pendergast and friends.
There is no denying that Two Graves is an exciting book. It brings the central mystery at the heart of the trilogy to an explosive and violent ending and does a good job of tying up most of the narrative. Where it falters is in trying to bring all the other characters of the Pendergast universe along for the ride as well. The problem is that there are two sub plots that have nothing to do with the main plot and they never intersect. The largest follows college student, and Pendergast’s pseudo-protégé, Corrie Swanson as she leaves town to escape the bad guys and ends up randomly having to save her estranged father who is framed by his employers for a bank robbery. While its interesting to see Corrie on her own trying to solve a mystery without Pendergast backing her, ultimately it is completely irrelevant to the main story. Even worse is an extended section that finds Dr. Fields trying to get a hold of a lock of hair from an ancient book that may prove asylum inmate, and Pendergast’s ward, Constance Green is sane after all. I found myself impatiently skimming these chapters to get back to Pendergast and his increasingly dire situation.
When compared to Preston & Child’s Gideon Crew series, the Pendergast novels still look like refined literature in comparison. However with “The Helen Trilogy”, and Two Graves in particular, the story is so outlandish and convoluted it is next to impossible to take anything that is happening seriously. What began in Fever Dream as an investigation into his wife’s murder concludes with Pendergast waging a one man war against a secret Nazi laboratory and trying to – quite literally – save the world from the rise of the 4th Reich. It is preposterous and hackneyed but in the hands of Preston & Child the story is compelling. At the conclusion I’m disappointed that Two Graves wasn’t the game changer that I expected. Although new characters are introduced the series has been reset almost as if the events of the Helen Trilogy never happened. Two Graves was a chance for Preston & Child to shake up the Pendergast universe in a way that would send everyone spinning in a new direction. Instead they take the easy way all but guaranteeing a sequel that will revisit this story line again. I have a feeling the authors regret killing off the last major villain, Pendergast’s brother Diogenes, and Two Graves is less about stopping the conspiracy and more to introduce the readers to a new foil to bedevil Pendergast in future books.
Two Graves is better than both Fever Dream and Cold Vengeance so at least this trilogy went out on a high. I plan to keep reading but each time I find I’m expecting less and less. As a long time reader of the duo I’m worried that the heights of Relic, Brimstone, Thunderhead, and The Ice Limit are not going to be reached again.
I hope to be proven wrong.