Book Review – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child’s “Brimstone”

Primarily set in New York City, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child‘s thrilling novel Brimstone continues the action in their Agent Pendergast series of books.

While Brimstone was published after Still Life with Crows, virtually nothing from that book has an influence on Brimstone.  Most of the previous references are from The Cabinet of Curiosities along with Reliquary.

It’s an ordinary day in Southampton, New York until Jeremy Grove, one of the community’s wealthy residents, is found dead inside of his mansion.  His death is a bit of a puzzle though as the home was locked tight with the intricate burglar alarms still armed, nothing of value was noted as missing, and Grove’s corpse was burned to a crisp — without burning the rest of the room or his house.

To make matters even more interesting, in the air is the smell of sulfur.  Burned onto the wooden floor by Grove’s body is a hoofprint.  Who, or what for that matter, killed Jeremy Grove?

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child --- BrimstoneSergeant Vincent D’Agosta is one of the police officers on the scene when FBI Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast makes an appearance at the crime scene.  Grove’s home is located on a beach, and it’s believed that the criminal crossed the water into neighboring New Jersey, so that makes it a federal crime and allows FBI Special Agent Pendergast onto the crime scene to help with the investigation.

The investigation begins and Pendergast and D’Agosta learn that Jeremy Grove was hosting a party just the previous night, and some of his guests were people that he had not spoken to for years.  It appears that Grove knew that something bad was going to happen to him, and he was trying to make amends and correct past mistakes that he made with people, as if it would help clear his conscious.

One of the suspects is a man named Nigel Cutforth.

Like Jeremy Grove, Nigel Cutforth is also a wealthy person.  He owns a deluxe apartment that doubles as a recording studio for musicians.  Before his interview with Sergeant D’Agosta, Cutforth and his wife notice the smell of sulfur in the air.  D’Agosta later interviews the man, and he catches him in a lie.  It’s implied that Cutforth knows more than he’s willing to admit to the police.  Perhaps telling the truth about his relationship with Grove would make him a better suspect in his murder.

However, before Cutforth can be further interviewed, his body is found by the apartment complex’s maintenance crew.  Cutforth suffers the same death as Jeremy Grove.  His body is nearly incinerated while the rest of the apartment is virtually untouched by the apparent fire.

Could Jeremy Grove and Nigel Cutforth’s deaths be that of spontaneous human combustion (SHC)?  One case of SHC is incredibly rare.  Two cases of it with both of the victims knowing each other sounds just a bit too suspicious.

While D’Agosta and Pendergast are investigating Cutforth’s death, they meet the New York Police Department’s officer in charge of this section of the Homicide Department — Captain Laura Hayward.  Laura Hayward assisted Pendergast and D’Agosta in solving the subway murders in Reliquary.  She excellent in her academic studies and advanced through the NYPD rankings as the department tried to increase it’s number of high ranking female officers.  She was in the right place at the right time, and before anybody knew it, she quickly became a captain in the police force.

Another of the initial suspects for Jeremy Grove’s death is a wealthy man named Locke Bullard.  When D’Agosta tries to interview him, he’s turned aware by Bullard’s bullying tactics and aggressive behaviour.  It’s going to take special skills if they’re going to get any information out of him.

Bullard is basically a hostile witness who might be holding back critical information for a murder case.  Pendergast and D’Agosta have Hayward secure a warrant for his arrest so that he can be interviewed about Grove’s murder.  Pendergast and D’Agosta confront Bullard on his yacht, and like before, he is still hostile.  Pendergast arrests him and announces it over the police radio, knowing that reporters would key in to Bullard’s name and place extra pressure on him.  Sure enough, there’s a swarm of reporters anxious to take Bullard’s picture when he arrives at the station in handcuffs.

Bullard is questioned after his lawyer arrives.  He doesn’t provide any useful information and is quickly released from police custody.  Pendergast knows that Bullard is withholding information and most likely going to flee the country, but there’s nothing that Hayward and the NYPD can do about it without further proof.

Back at his temporary residence at his family’s mansion north of NYC, Pendergast is paid a visit by a mysterious man.  The mystery man turns out to be a CIA agent, and he gives Pendergast a massive file relating to Bullard’s suspected wrongdoings.  It turns out that Bullard is the founder and CEO of Bullard Aerospace Industries, a research and engineering company that happens to be working with China’s latest ballistic missiles.  All of BIA’s actions in the U.S. are technically legal, and it’s BIA’s European location in Florence, Italy where the really secret stuff is taking place.

The CIA agent isn’t able to touch Bullard as Bullard has many contacts in high places throughout Congress and Washington, D.C.  However, if Pendergast is able to find a way to rid the country of this traitor, then many people would be very grateful.

Bullard knows that Pendergast is dangerous, so he hires an assassin to kill the FBI Special Agent.  The assassin tries to snipe Pendergast from a vacant building near Pendergast’s home.  Fortunately, Pendergast outsmarts the assassin, and he stops the attack.  Before he can be hauled away in handcuffs, the assassin uses poison to kill himself, taking many secrets with him to the grave.

It’s also during this time frame that Pendergast and D’Agosta’s investigation leads them to a man named Ranier Beckmann.  They discover an old photograph showing Beckmann, Grove, Cutforth and Bullard as teenagers standing in front of a fountain.  Beckmann, though, died years ago.  Pendergast is able to locate the man’s grave, and after exhuming the corpse it’s confirmed.

Research into Beckmann’s life points them to Florence, Italy.  That’s where the photograph of the men was taken many years ago.

While this is taking place, New York Post newspaper reporter Bryce Harriman writes a story about the deaths of Grove and Cutforth.  He also interviews a scientist who has researched history and mathematically proven that this year (Brimstone was published in 2004) would see the destruction of New York City.  It fits a pattern that has established itself for over a thousand of years.

These newspaper articles gains the attention of Reverend Wayne P. Buck Jr., a former convicted criminal who turned to religion and now seeks to save lost souls.  Buck makes his way cross country to New York City.  Once there, he gains the crowds that have gathered outside of Cutforth’s building and begins preaching his sermons about the end of the world.  He quickly gains followers as Harriman continues to write stellar articles about Buck and his messages to the world.

Brimstone involves FBI Special Agent Pendergast and Sergeant Vincent D’Agosta flying to Florence, Italy, and pursuing their leads into Ranier Beckmann and Locke Bullard.

The action in Florence involves the agents unsuccessfully trying to infiltrate BIA’s Florence compound.  They’re caught and interrogated by Bullard, but they escape from his compound.  Shortly later, Locke Bullard dies in the same manner as Grover and Cutforth.

The story culminates as the true killer emerges.  We learn that, no, the devil himself is not suddenly appearing and taking people’s souls.  These people have all been killed by a sophisticated “death ray” that works like a high-powered microwave.  It literally cooks people from the inside out, and when the power is focused high enough, the people’s bodies literally catch fire.

So why are the people killed in this manner?

It’s to throw off the police.  The killer really wanted a valuable violin at all costs.

Yeah, it all comes down to a violin in this book.  There’s no great twist or supernatural or just plain crazy twist at the end of this story.

So is Brimstone a good book?

When it comes to Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child books, Brimstone stays on par with the other excellent books in the series until the last third of the book.  That’s where Brimstone stalls and fails to deliver an awesome conclusion or fascinating twist ending.

Like the other books, Brimstone is full of details and is clearly evident of being a well researched novel.  You’ll learn quite a bit about operas, music, violins, and the Italian culture, particularly that of the Florence area.  While that part is somewhat interesting, the violin parts in particular are actually quite boring.

There’s no monster in this book, nor is there a sadistic killer on the loose.  While the main killer is an intelligent person, he only targets a few people to kill.  Pendergast and D’Agosta are only added to his hit list because they’re trying to apprehend and bring him to justice.  Otherwise, the rest of the world is quite safe from this killer.

When you add in the ultra-special Stradivarius violin, Brimstone feels like a major let down.  I was hoping for some kind of supernatural or horrific twist, but it’s not in this book.  The action in the end is great and you’ll stay up late at night and turning the pages, but it does not leave you with a satisfied feeling in the end.

Reaching more than seven hundred and twenty pages, the paperback version of Brimstone is a bit of an endurance run.  There’s a lot of material in this book, but you can safely skim many of the details about Italian life and speed up the reading process.  It’s somewhat interesting but it won’t be for everybody.

I really wish that Brimstone had a more sinister plot with an equally horrific ending.  This book starts out great and has a fantastic idea with the concept of the devil coming up and taking people’s lives, but this book fizzles once you realize what’s really happening in the story.

Brimstone is good, but it could have been significantly better.

three stars