City of Endless Night – Preston & Child
As I mentioned in my review for last year’s series entry, The Obsidian Chamber, I’m really starting to wonder why I’m still reading these books. For every Crimson Shore there is a White Fire. I don’t think Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child really have their heart in the game anymore which is disappointing to this long time fan. Maybe it’s the abundance of side series like the tales of enigmalogist Jeremy Logan for Lincoln Child, the Wyman Ford series for Douglas Preston, or their Pendergast crossover series featuring the thief Gideon Crew. Just typing all of that made me tired so I have to give full props to the duo, they are truly writing machines.
Whatever the reason, City of Eternal Night is a by-the-numbers entry in the long running Pendergast series that finds Special Agent AXL Pendergast and NYPD Lt. Vincent D’Agusta side by side trying to solve a series of baffling murders that has the entire city on edge. Again.
These murders are the highlight of the book. Nearly all of the victims are extremely well guarded and very wealthy. To the point where assassinating them is an impossible mission. Yet the killer pulls it off and, as a reward, takes their head from the scene. So the media, inventively, labels the killer The Decapitator. The story takes a social commentary turn when it’s revealed that all of the victims were reprehensible human beings. Gun traffickers, mob lawyers, an affluenza afflicted daughter of a tech scion, few are going to miss these people. Which means there are very little stakes to the outcome. I really didn’t care if they ever caught the killer. He’s killing off 1% scumbags? Good luck and God bless ya!
Alas, the authorities are keen to bring the killings to a halt and keep increasing pressure on D’Agusta to find the killer and bring them to justice. I had a hard time buying that D’Agusta would come under such intense pressure from the Mayor and the NYPD to catch the killer after only a few days of mayhem. However this series has yet to find a cop-story cliché it doesn’t want to beat in to the ground until it’s a fine powder so I just rolled with it.
You may remember that at the end of The Obsidian Chamber, Constance Greene left New York to be with her son in Tibet. Her absence leaves Pendergast unstable and to emphasize his change in mental state the reader is given very little insight in to what he is thinking until the finale. So we are left with D’Agusta running in to dead end after dead end while senior NYC officials are barking at him to solve the crimes and Pendergast makes inscrutable remarks refusing to divulge his theories, if he has any. Unsurprisingly, this pisses off D’Agusta and this reader was right there with him frustrated with Pendergast’s behavior.
For long sections of the book Pendergast is entirely un-engaged and takes a back seat to D’Agusta. In fact, he serves as more of a supporting character, recalling the duo’s dynamic all the way back in The Relic. Once the killer directly engages with Pendergast and D’Agusta in the final act it’s an exciting conclusion but ultimately doesn’t make a lick of sense. In order to buy in to the ending you have to believe that this villain – whose unmasked identity is so left field the reveal elicits incredulity more than the intended shock – could out think the brilliant Pendergast. Not only out think him, but so thoroughly out think and manipulate him that the villain puts Diogenes* to shame. This weakens the Diogenes/Pendergast relationship in retrospect. Putting The Decapitator on the level of Diogenes is akin to adding Egghead to the Batman varsity squad with Joker.
It doesn’t help that I hated every aspect of the villain and the writing for that character is really weak. It keeps with the theme of the novel but the killer has no redeeming qualities of any kind. The ending is simply tedious because I wanted nothing more than for the climactic cat & mouse chase to end with Pendergast beating the villain to death with a cudgel and foregoing the remaining 40 pages spent drawing out the conclusion.
There are subplots and characters that seem to exist for no other reason than to pad the page count. The subplots tie with the 99% vs. 1% theme but you could leave them out entirely and be no worse off. So we are left with a core story that with some trimming could have been a novella. As for the supporting characters they are largely unmemorable. There is a street zealot who exists only to give Captain Laura Hayward, D’Agusta’s wife, something to do outside of their apartment. Another character is introduced and seems to be crucial to the story but then nothing is done with them. It’s head scratching and would stand as an obvious lead to the next book if the character had appeared at any point in the last 75 pages rather than simply disappearing from the narrative with no mention.
If you are fan and can overlook the many shortcomings there is enough in City of Endless Night to keep you entertained. This book is largely stand alone and the supporting cast of regulars have been trimmed dramatically from more recent books. I liked the idea of a case bringing Pendergast and D’Agusta back together again but in execution the writers seem to know that at this point the series has gone too big to go back to a small intimate story again and not feel awkward. This one ends with an epilogue that may point the way to the next book or simply reset the status quo. Time will tell and if Preston & Child keep their publication schedule as dependable as the last few years I’ll be back to review another one of these in about 12 months.
Set your Egghead watch! Same Pendergast time! Same Pendergast channel!
*The arch villain of the series to this point. If Pendergast is Holmes, Diogenes is Moriarty. He featured in some of the best books in the series including what is now knows as “The Diogenes Trilogy” with Brimstone, Dance of Death, and The Book of the Dead.
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