Book Review – Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child’s “Cemetery Dance”
Last week I finished reading Cemetery Dance, the ninth story in the Special Agent Pendergast series of books by authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. The events in this story take place in New York City.
Loosely following the events in The Wheel of Darkness, Cemetery Dance begins with one-year anniversary of the marriage between newspaper reporter William Smithback, Jr. and anthropologist Dr. Nora Kelly. When Nora steps out of their apartment for a moment to get an “anniversary surprise,” a neighbor, Colin Fearing, enters their apartment and uses a knife to brutally murder Bill.
It’s a horrific and bloody scene. When Nora returns a few minutes later, Colin attacks her as well. Her life is spared when her cries of help are heard by her neighbors. Colin flees the scene and escapes into the city.
The oddity is that Colin Fearing committed suicide two weeks ago. He’s supposed to be dead and buried in a graveyard.
The NYPD immediately begins to investigate the murder. NYPD Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta is examining the apartment when he discovers that FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is also examining the scene of the crime. He’s collecting blood samples and has noticed that the “dead” murderer made it a point to clean himself and his knife before departing the apartment. It’s also quickly discovered that at no point did Colin Fearing attempt to hide his face from his neighbors or the building’s security cameras.
Nora Kelly suffers from nightmares while she’s recovering from the attack in the hospital. She thinks that she keeps seeing Colin Fearing. Her fears are compounded when she returns to work at the New York Museum of Natural History, and she swears that not only is Colin stalking her outside of her lab, but that he’s also chased her in parts of the building.
It doesn’t take long until other reporters make the connection of Colin Fearing really being a zombie. For some reason the undead creature killed Bill, and it’s now targeting his wife, Nora. The stories continue and some people in the city start to panic.
Meanwhile, D’Agosta and Pendergast go to the morgue and learn that it was Colin’s sister who flew in from London to identify his body after he jumped off a bridge and committed suicide. When they go to a cemetery to exhume his body, they discover that his casket is empty apart from a voodoo symbol. It’s the same type of symbol that was drawn with Bill’s blood back in his apartment.
The voodoo connection seems apparent, and Pendergast goes to a specialty store and creates a voodoo charm to protect Nora against threats from the undead. He also calls in a friend and voodoo specialist from Louisiana to help him against this threat in New York City.
Nora Kelly is unable to sleep, and she’s driven by both her work and trying to figure out why Bill was killed. Caitlyn Kidd, another newspaper reporter, teams up with Nora, and the two of them examine Bill’s last research topics. It turns out that Bill was investigating cases of animal sacrifices taking place in Inwood Hill Park on a remote piece of land on the northern tip of Manhattan Island. There’s a compound called “the Ville,” and it’s been occupied by mysterious squatters for over a hundred years now. Because of a law in New York, since the original owner of the land didn’t challenge the squatters within the first twenty years of their illegal occupancy, the land now belongs to them.
One night Nora and Caitlyn sneak into the Ville, but they’re chased and nearly attacked by a mysterious creature. They barely escape and Caitlyn writes an article about the compound, making claims of animal sacrifices as well as a zombie on the property.
Pendergast and D’Agosta’s investigation leads them to Alexander Esteben, a wealthy filmmaker who lives on Long Island. When stores about the Ville began spreading, he quickly became one of the biggest critics against the place. Esteben claims to be a strong advocate for animal rights, and he sees no problem with destroying that entire compound.
The situation escalates at a gathering of reporters when Caitlyn is standing on stage and suddenly stabbed to death by a zombie version of Bill Smithback. Everybody is shocked by the brutal murder. When Nora storms into the morgue, she discovers that Bill’s body is missing and has been replaced by voodoo artifacts. She’s placed back in a hospital to rest, but Nora is kidnapped and taken away in the middle of the night.
The murder of Caitlyn and kidnapping of Nora is the breaking point for many of the city’s residents. They’re terrified of the zombie threat, and they’re convinced that the people responsible are the squatters doing the animal sacrifices at the Ville. Esteben organizes a rally, and the people march to the Ville. Before they break inside, they’re stopped by D’Agosta, Pendergast, and also Esteben. It turns out that he wasn’t quite ready for the mob to storm the compound just yet.
D’Agosta is able to secure a search warrant through animal control, and he, Pendergast, and several others use that to access the Ville. Inside of the compound they meet the occupants, a fanatical group of people who sacrifice animals, use a version of voodoo, and also worship a zombie creature. It’s a tense situation and the police have to make a quick retreat before the mob of people becomes violent and attacks them.
A little while later a video clip of an imprisoned Nora is released to the police. Esteben uses that as an excuse to form an even bigger mob. He organizes several large mobs to meet at a designated time, and then have everybody storm the compound and destroy it.
Before Esteben’s mob attacks, Pendergast and D’Agosta use disguises to sneak into the Ville and try to locate and rescue Nora. The problem is that she’s nowhere to be found. They search underground and are attacked by the zombie creature. The two of them are separated and Pendergast escapes the Ville. He’s found enough evidence to know where Nora is being held prisoner. Pendergast alerts NYPD Captain Laura Hayward that D’Agosta’s life may be in danger.
The mob attacks the compound and there’s a brief battle between the animal rights supporters and the cult. Laura Hayward finds her way underground and, with Vincent’s help, they shoot and ultimately kill the zombie creature.
Pendergast goes to Esteben’s house and discovers underground tunnels. It’s the same type of material seen in the video clip of Nora being held captive. Esteben attacks Pendergast, but in the end he and Nora are able to kill Esteben. He was the one responsible for the chaos in the city.
It turns out that one of Esteben’s distant ancestors owned the property now being used by companies on Wall Street. There was enough evidence to prove that Esteben is the sole descendant of this relative, and he would be able to make the claim. The only problem is that his ancestor was buried in what later became the Ville. There’s no way that he could sneak into the compound without being noticed, so he began hinting to Bill Smithback about the animal sacrifices taking place there, hoping that the reporter would run with that story.
To further incite the citizens, Esteben hired Colin Fearing to act as a dead guy. He had Esteben fake his death, he used somebody else’s corpse in the river, and had Caitlyn Kidd stand in as Colin’s distant sister. The act worked and Colin was officially “dead”. Esteben then used make-up to make Colin look sinister, and then he had him kill Bill and attack Nora, making it a point to show his face to the cameras as well as the neighbors. He then had Colin stalk Nora to keep up her fear.
Bill’s body was then stolen from the morgue. Bill and Colin had a similar body type. It was then Colin wearing a mask made from Bill’s face when he attacked and killed Caitlyn, silencing and preventing her from spreading Esteben’s secret. After Caitlyn was killed, Esteben had no more use for Colin Fearing, so he had Colin killed and dumped his body near the Ville, further spreading the zombie fear.
Moments before the mob attacked the Ville, Esteben was able to sneak into the compound, locate his ancestor’s coffin, and recover the deed. He then returned to his home and was going to kill Nora, but Pendergast had figured out the plan and beat him there.
As far as the “zombie” at the Ville, that wasn’t a true zombie. At one point Pendergast discovered a tool that was designed to perform a partial lobotomy. It turns out that a volunteer was selected from the congregation at the Ville, and that person would undergo the quick procedure to be converted into what the congregation believed was a protector. In reality, this “zombie” was reduced in brain power to that of a child, but it could feel no pain and had no fear, making it a powerful and terrifying weapon.
Cemetery Dance ends with Nora Kelly quitting her work at the museum and returning to her home in New Mexico. She reflects on the events in Thunderhead when she first met Bill. Nora uses a boat to reach a secret spot in Lake Powell that Bill showed her years ago, and there she spreads his ashes.
Is Preston and Child’s Cemetery Dance any good?
It’s pretty good, but not great.
Cemetery Dance starts out strong with Bill’s murder and this mysterious zombie creature stalking people in New York City. The tension and suspense continue to build as it looks more and more like there’s a supernatural threat to the city.
Instead of this turning out to be a supernatural or monster book (like the museum monster in Relic), Cemetery Dance feels more like a Scooby-Doo mystery with greed being the motivator for the story’s villain. It works as a story, but it feels like a let down for these Preston and Child books. There was so much room for this story to be a lot darker and more sinister.
Another issue for me was that Cemetery Dance felt a little bit too familiar with an earlier Pendergast story, Still Life with Crows. Both of those stories feature a “monster” who turns out to be a human being with incredible strength, and they both attack people both above and below ground. Still Life with Crows had a better mythological element and stronger story, whereas Cemetery Dance is a weaker version of a similar concept.
In the end, Cemetery Dance is good, but it’s not a great story. It helps move the overall story line, it features the murder of Bill Smithback, and it also writes Nora Kelly out of the New York City setting by sending her back to her roots in New Mexico.
But that’s really it.
Maybe in the future we’ll see a better voodoo story involving Pendergast and his home in New Orleans.