This is the 13th of the Preston & Child novels to feature the enigmatic, brilliant Special Agent Aloysius X.L. Pendergast and I think it’s time to give the man a well deserved break. Somewhere along the way Preston & Child thrillers have become all about Pendergast to the detriment of the other characters in the series. After the harrowing and incredibly convoluted events of Two Graves, White Fire is at first a welcome break from the labyrinthine plotting that has plagued recent novels in the series. However that simplicity of plot comes at a cost.
Beginning a few months after Two Graves, Corrie Swanson is now a student at the prestigious criminal justice school John Jay. While hunting for a thesis topic she stumbles upon a bizarre story from the mid 1800’s of a grizzly bear that savaged several silver miners in the town of Roaring Fork, Colorado. As luck would have it the graves of the miners have recently been exhumed to make way for a multi-million dollar housing development. So with plucky courage in hand, and little else, Corrie heads to the now affluent ski resort Roaring Fork with intention to examine the bodies. Soon after her arrival a wealthy family is burned alive in their home. In no time at all, Pendergast is on the case. First extracting Corrie from jail – only the first consequence of many increasingly bad decisions on Corrie’s part – then offering his services to the baffled Roaring Fork PD. After another arson/murder the town is thrown in to panic and as Corrie and Pendergast keep digging up the mysteries of the past their lives are put in mortal danger, culminating – naturally – in a race against time as a snowstorm cuts off the mountain town.
With only Corrie Swanson and Pendergast as the main recurring characters, along with a handful of supporting characters, the mystery aspect comes off as flat and simplistic. It doesn’t take a disciple of the Chongg Ran meditative method to surmise what is going on a full 50 pages before the characters do. At it’s core, White Fire is a fairly simple story of insanity fueled revenge that is dressed up with a lot of tangents to pad out the page length. As soon as a rich and powerful family is introduced it’s easy to see they are the true villains at the heart of the story. But the manipulative bastards figure so little into the actual action they come across as a toothless adversary. Along the way Pendergast becomes convinced that the key to the mystery lies in a rumored lost Sherlock Holmes story. This sends him to England for a while trying to track down the story. It’s a bizarre tangent that feels like it was shoe horned in to the main story. At least 50 pages are devoted to this subplot and while it adds some interesting color is completely irrelevant to the main mystery.
If you are a devotee of the series I grudgingly recommend White Fire. It starts off strongly with a few truly horrifying scenes and an intriguing mystery that unfortunately does fall flat during the paint-by-numbers ending. White Fire ultimately serves as a bridge between the lunacy of Two Graves and whatever is coming next. There are quick mentions of other characters in the series – including those from Two Graves – so if you have read the others it should probably be on your list. For everyone else, this is definitely a lesser Pendergast outing. It’s nowhere near as bad as the authors’ Gideon Crew series, but is still near the bottom of the canon thus far. If you are new to the series start with Relic. Try as they might, the authors still have never topped their first.