Verses for the Dead is the 18th entry in the Pendergast series and also the most entertaining since the delightfully bonkers Crimson Shore. It jettisons all of the standard supporting characters, introduces a partner for Pendergast, and features one of the more interesting cases in a while. This time, Pendergast is on the hunt for a serial killer in Miami. The self styled Mr. Brokenhearts has been murdering young women, taking their hearts, and leaving them on the graves of suicide victims along with a poetic note. The FBI’s foremost agent dedicated to the bizarre is dispatched but in an effort to rein in his tendencies to go rogue he is given a partner, Special Agent Coldmoon.
The bodies pile up, Pendergast puts the pieces together, and a final showdown ensues. All of this is standard operating procedure for a Pendergast novel. What sets this one apart from the others is the introduction of Special Agent Coldmoon. He’s a no nonsense agent, brought up on the Sioux reservation and as driven as Pendergast to solve the crimes and bring justice to the victims. The dichotomy between the two agents is a pure odd-couple pairing and works exceedingly well injecting a fresh spin on a tired formula. Coldmoon isn’t the only new character along for this ride. We are also introduced to the previously unmentioned reporter Roger Smithback, brother of murdered major character Bill Smithback. There is also an assortment of Miami police and a junior medical examiner, Dr. Charlotte Fauchet, that all serve to shake up the formula a bit.
Unfortunately, Preston & Child can’t quite escape their summer beach read tendencies and just as the tension is starting to escalate the book ends quickly with a desperate fight for survival in the Florida swamps culminating in a villain monologue and deus ex machina ending. It’s an exciting finale, but it’s also well worn territory for the authors*. Worse, the epilogue suggests a sitcom reset with Verses for the Dead serving only as a stand alone outing and not a new direction for the series. I suspect one of more of the characters introduced may be on the hook for their own spinoff series now that the Gideon Crew novels have ended but time will tell.
To that end, Preston & Child recently announced a new series featuring long sidelined archeologist Nora Kelly, with the first entry called Old Bones. I’m greatly looking forward to this one. Other than Constance Greene the women in their stories tend to be given short shrift and exist only to be fridged or serve as transparent attempts to keep the stories from being predominantly male dominated affairs, which incidentally is the role the young medical examiner, Dr. Fauchet, fills in Verses for the Dead.
The truth is while these books offer less and less surprise, reading them is still an enjoyable way to pass a few evenings and unwind. I hope Preston & Child continue to branch out and introduce new characters to the Pendergast universe. The Nora Kelly spin off is a good start and with her archaeological background I wouldn’t be a surprised to see her paired up with Special Agent Coldmoon in a future outing that takes the two out west to solve an inscrutable mystery that ends in a fight for survival, villain monologue, and a shoot out.
Hey, I guess if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But I do wish they would try.
While not the intent, the sheer volume of their output has meant Preston & Child are featured a lot on Criticult. My other reviews of their various work are here:
*SPOILER NOTE ON THE ENDING BELOW
Tying the motivation of Mr. Brokenhearts to a poem that is revealed in the final pages is a direct lift from the authors’ own 2003 novel, Still Life with Crows. I’m not sure if Preston & Child meant it as a sly Easter egg or are just recycling old plots now but its unmistakable and long time readers are sure to catch it easily.