Book Review – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child’s “The Book of the Dead”
Following the previous posting, another book that I read within the past year was The Book of the Dead, the next novel in the Special Agent Pendergast series of thrillers written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
Set immediately after the events in Dance of Death, The Book of the Dead begins with a strange package arriving at the New York Museum of Natural History. The package contains not just ordinary dust (or anthrax as originally suspected), but rather the museum’s former diamond collection pulverized into grit. This was the work of Diogenes Pendergast.
The press quickly learns about the diamond dust, and the museum’s director needs to find a way to distract the public from this embarrassing moment. The answer quickly arrives in the form of a telegraph by a mysterious person named Comte Thierry de Cahors. In exchange for a donation of ten million euros, de Cahors wants the museum to renovate and reopen the Tomb of Senef, an old Egyptian exhibit that was part of the museum’s originally collection of exhibits. The director quickly agrees and anthropologist Dr. Nora Kelly is tasked with not only getting the old exhibit ready for the public in only six weeks, but making it a spectacular experience as well.
Meanwhile, FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is being held in the Heckmoor Federal Correctional and Holding Facility until being sent to trial for the murder of FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Mike Decker. He’s placed in solitary confinement and FBI Special Agent Spencer Coffey wants to make sure that Pendergast suffers, both physically and mentally. Coffey is also leading the charge to get Pendergast placed in a death penalty trial.
Pendergast’s stay in prison isn’t pleasant, but he surprises the warden and the guards by the way he handles his fellow inmates. One of the inmates had a reputation for driving people crazy by the way he continually tapped on his cell. Other inmates are there simply to pick fights and try to beat up Pendergast. It’s what you would expect in a federal prison designed to hold the worst of the worst, and the ways that Pendergast handle the situations are rather interesting.
Pendergast isn’t without help though. Outside of the prison, using plans created by Eli Ginn, NYPD Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta and Proctor follow Eli’s instructions and begin to communicate with Pendergast. Later, they use an elaborate plan to bust him out of prison.
Back at Pendergast’s home, Constance Greene is alone when she’s suddenly confronted by Diogenes. The first encounter is startling to Constance, but she gradually warms up to Diogenes when he makes more visits and interacts with her unique mind. After a while he eventually seduces her.
At the museum, the old Tomb of Senef exhibit is located in the museum’s basement, and it’s brought up to the main floor and reconstructed. It’s an elaborate exhibit consisting of several chambers, a wooden bridge over a seemingly bottomless pit, and finally the burial chamber containing the mummy’s sarcophagus.
The plan to make the walk-though exhibit more exciting is to include a multimedia presentation including sound effects and lifelike holographic images, taking the guests back to the time when the tomb was originally discovered and looted by grave robbers. When everything is put together, it’s an amazing experience that’s guaranteed to dazzle the museum’s guests.
The problem is that while work commences on the exhibit, strange events take place. Some of the workers suddenly attack and kill other people, making people wonder if the tomb is cursed. At one point it’s believed that there’s a monster roaming the museum’s vast attic space, and killing people up there. The “monster” turns out to be one of the workers who had gone insane.
After Pendergast is freed from prison, he meets with Eli and undergoes self-hypnosis to finish revealing information about his relationship with Diogenes. Aloysius reveals that back when they were young, he and Diogenes were exploring their mansion home in New Orleans. Their adventure took them into the basement, and down there they discovered a relative’s chamber that was used in magic shows. Named “The Doorway to Hell,” this chamber was allegedly so scary that it could drive people insane. Diogenes is dared to go into it first, and he’s accidentally locked inside when the chamber is activated. The machine flashes a series of crime scene and murder images over and over again, and to escape his torment, Diogenes uses a single-shot pistol (deliberately placed there to offer victims “a way out”) and shoots himself in the head.
Diogenes survives the gunshot, and his injury is covered up by his parents. He eventually recovers but holds a permanent grudge against Aloysius. Unfortunately, Aloysius was so traumatized from the event that he subconsciously blocked it from his memory. He knew that something terrible happened, and that alone would give him shivers, but the details always remained blocked. Until now.
By the time this is revealed, the Tomb of Senef exhibit is having its grand unveiling to the public. It’s a huge event and important people from all over New York City are there to attend it. Nora Kelly leads the first group of visitors into the exhibit, and the doors are locked behind them. All goes well until Diogenes’s plan for revenge is activated, and through audio and visuals, the guests are given a brutal attack on their senses, driving some of them insane. The technicians are powerless to stop the show as Diogenes had added a back-up system to prevent any outside influence.
Vincent and Pendergast race back to the museum. With the help of the NYPD and Captain Laura Hayward, they manage to find a weak wall in the museum and break into the Tomb of Senef. Lights and speakers are destroyed, and Nora Kelly and many of the guests are saved from going insane.
It turns out that Diogenes’s real plan wasn’t to just torment and ultimately kill the museum guests. News crews were doing a live broadcast from inside of the tomb, and his goal was to use that broadcast to make millions of viewers watching at home also go insane and on a killing rampage. Thankfully, the news broadcast vehicle was disabled, and the broadcast of the carnage never occurred.
Meanwhile, Diogenes flees from New York City. He takes a train upstate and wants to kill Margo Green while she’s still recovering in a clinic, but his plan is foiled by Constance. She had found him on the train and tries to shoot and kill Diogenes, but she misses. Diogenes escapes, changes his identity again, and then flees the country, heading overseas to Florence, Italy.
Constance follows Diogenes to his home in Italy. When Pendergast and D’Agosta discover this fact, Aloysius follows along in pursuit.
It turns out that Diogenes’s secret home is actually on the island of Stromboli off the Italian coast. He lives in a villa in a small town located on the edge of an active volcano.
Constance arrives on the island first, and when she makes her way to Diogenes’s villa, she tries to shoot and kill him. This catches Diogenes off guard, but he’s able to defend himself and make a retreat. When he spots a boat arriving and Aloysius on board, Diogenes flees up the slopes of the volcano and tries to lay a trap for the two of them. Aloysius heads up the mountain and gives chase, forcing Diogenes further up the mountain.
In the end, Constance gets to Diogenes first. She fights him on the edge of a cliff, and it looks like the two of them fall into the active lava flow beneath them. Aloysius witnesses this. When he runs up there to check on them, he discovers that Constance survived and Diogenes had fallen into the lava and died.
Several months later, Vincent D’Agosta speaks with Laura Hayward and learns that all charges against Aloysius Pendergast have been dropped. Enough evidence had been found to have charged Diogenes with the murders. The FBI gave Pendergast a six-month leave of absence to rest and recover. Special Agent Coffey was caught in a scandal and busted in rank and sent to a field office in North Dakota.
In the NYPD, D’Agosta has to face a trial and account for his actions. His supervisor and Laura both stand up for him, and it’s implied that he’ll be reinstated at his former rank of lieutenant. It’s also hinted that Laura still cares and wants to get back together with Vincent.
The Book of the Dead ends with Pendergast deciding to take Constance to a remote monastery in Tibet, the same place where Pendergast once spent some time. He believes that the monks there can give her guidance and a direction in life. Constance then informs Pendergast that she’s pregnant.
So is Preston & Child’s The Book of the Dead any good?
Yes, most of this book was really good.
To me, this book really shined when it focused on events in the New York Museum of Natural History. Several other books in this series have taken place in the museum, and that’s one of the strengths in the Pendergast novels. Here we’re back in that element, and the Egyptian exhibit is fascinating as well. An added bonus is that the exhibit feels like an intricate attraction that you would experience at one of the Disney or Universal theme parks. It’s that cool.
The book touches a feeling of dread with a mysterious curse, and there’s a brief “monster” element, but nothing supernatural occurs here. It’s all controlled chaos from Diogenes.
The Book of the Dead is also the final story in the Diogenes trilogy. Here we finally learn why Diogenes has such a hatred towards his brother Aloysius. Diogenes sets up his final act of revenge, but when that fails, he has to retreat back home. In the end, he’s killed in a fitting manner by falling into an active volcano. It’s Diogenes though who has the final laugh as Constance is pregnant with his child.
A large part of the book deals with Aloysious and his experience in prison. While it’s interesting at times, it also feels like there are just too many cliches during those sequences, and that his escape is a little too unrealistic.
In the end, The Book of the Dead is a good book and worthy addition to this series. I would have preferred it to have been darker and more sinister, but the final product is still good. Fans of the Preston & Child books will feel right at home here.