Review of the Agent Pendergast Series by Preston and Child
tl;dr — The Agent Pendergast series by Preston & Child is a worthy and creepy successor to Sherlock Holmes.
“I’m afraid I don’t suffer petty bureaucrats gladly. A very bad habit, but one I find hard to break. Nevertheless, you will find, Dr. Kelly, that humiliation and blackmail, when used judiciously, can be marvelously effective”
The Agent Pendergast series is written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. It stars the eponymous Aloysius Xengu Ling Pendergast who is a special agent for the FBI. The first 18 books (17 novels and a novella) have been reviewed. You can also read the review of Douglas Preston’s non fiction book — The Lost City of the Monkey God — here.
Individual reviews of these books follow the review of the series.
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The Agent Pendergast series consists of creepy gripping stories which usually have serial killings in them. They tend to be very well written and draw the reader in immediately.
Agent Pendergast is a special agent in the FBI who is feel to choose his assignments and go where he pleases. He is also very rich which means that he is not beholden to others. In addition, he is. of course, very smart and talented in a lot of areas. He is a spiritual successor to Sherlock Holmes and his stories usually have a lot of references to classic Sherlockiana while not copying them outright. The authors have also chosen to make him mildly sociopathic.
He is surrounded by a cast of characters who are well fleshed out and are pretty smart in their own right. One of this series’s strength is the ability for characters to grow over the course of the many books — some are killed off and some (whom you might have disregarded early on) become main characters in their own right. This adds to the feeling of a well fleshed out universe that these books reside in.
While the stories tend to be grim (as serial killer mysteries tend to be), there is a lot of subtle humour that eases the tension. Pendergast and quite a few other characters deliver some choice sound-bites where needed. But, the humour is reasonably highbrow and there is none of the slapstick kind.
The series starts off strongly — the first four books are my favorite — loses it way in between and regains its footing in the last 3–4 books. But, make no mistake, while the books might vary in quality relative to each other, they are all individually much better than most other mystery-thrillers out there.
In conclusion, Agent Pendergast is a great series and I give it a strong recommend.
Whew! I just finished Relic and it was mind blowing. The pacing and atmosphere make this an intense read like nothing else. The story is simple & straightforward — in the words of Hudson (Aliens), its a bug hunt. But what a bug hunt. I am still getting over it.
I have seen the movie before and it is quite forgettable. The book is way better — in terms of characterization, the dialogues as well as the sense of creeping dread one gets as the book progresses.
In conclusion, it is a great read. Go for it.
Reliquary is to Relic what Aliens is to Alien. Both are them are great books (and movies) and while the first book (movie) focuses on a single predator in a closed space, the latter focuses on multiple predators in larger space.
Reliquary, while being as intense as Relic, also manages to have time for character development. In addition to the gang of four we saw in Relic (Pendergast, D’Agosta, Margo & Bill), we have new characters who also have their own unique stories.The great writing as well as the fast pacing carries over from Relic.
In conclusion, Reliquary is a great sequel to Relic.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is an excellent serial killer based story. It is creepy, tense and intelligent. It has all the trademarks of this series — great writing, subtle humour, brilliant characters and an intricate mystery.
The Cabinet of Curiosities gives us a far deeper look into Pendergast than either of the previous books. He reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock with his mannerisms, memory palace and coterie of smart assistants. I wonder how much inspiration Mark Gatis took from Pendergast when creating Sherlock — I am sure there would have been some influence at the least. Pendergast out-Sherlock’s Sherlock.
In conclusion, this is a great read. Go for it.
I guess I should have expected it. After three great books, the law of averages finally caught up with Agent Pendergast.
While this book is still much better than most of the dross out there, this is easily the weakest so far due to two reasons. The first being the over-reliance on the memory palace (this was ok in The Cabinet of Curiosities) because in this book it acts as a deux ex machina. The second is the trite resolution (no spoilers). This book has excellent writing and characterization going for it along one of the coolest names ever but that is not enough for me to overlook the previous points.
So, Still Life with Crows is good but not great.
Brimstone starts off promisingly but putters out towards the end.
So…, the book is actually quite good till the last act. Once, the villain is revealed in all his Blofeld like glory, the book falters. Other than this (which is a big deal), Brimstone has excellent writing & characterization blah blah blah.
Preston & Child have used this book to set up a ‘Moriarty’ for Pendergast or is that a Mycroft? ;-). In addition, a new character is abruptly introduced which made me wonder if I had missed a book in between but then I realized it was not so. We also get to meet a couple of returning characters — D’Agosta & Laura Hayward.
This is a run of the mill action thriller and quite unlike any other book in the series so far. There is zero creepiness, we know who the antagonist is right from the start and the story is your usual serial killer messes with good cop trope. So it is very different from your usual Pendergast storylines.
There are tons of Sherlock Holmes references in this book (more so than usual). Agent Pendergast pulls a Reichenbach Falls at the end of Brimstone and, appropriately enough, comes back into an Empty House scenario. His brother is an amoral Moriarty mixed with Mycroft. And Pendergast has a faithful companion in D’Agosta.
I found Dance of Death to be passable at best and meh at worst. The only thing keeping me interested now is to see the downfall of Diogenes.
The Book of the Dead is another so-so entry in the Pendergast-verse and brings the Diogenes trilogy to an end (hopefully!).
It suffers from the same malaise as the previous couple of books in that the antagonist is boring and the story boils down to Batman chasing the Joker in the Dark Knight. There is no mystery and the protagonists are basically boring while having the ability to foresee random events. And the ending is ambiguous enough without any form of closure.
Oh well!. I hope the next book will be a return to the core pendergast values.
After the disappointing Diogenes trilogy, Agent Pendergast is back in a much better book. The story is set in Tibet & on an ocean liner which brings back the feeling of claustrophobia that existed in The Relic. In addition, Constance is now a much more involved character which brings that extra oomph that was missing.
Not everything is great though. The ending is a deus ex machina. Plus, the plot point used here is quite similar to the plot point in The Book of the Dead.
So, The Wheel of Darkness is a decent Agent Pendergast book but it palls in comparison to the first three in the series.
Cemetery Dance is a return to form for Agent Pendergast. It has an intriguing mystery, hints of the macabre and the return of some familiar characters. Surprisingly, for a story set in New York, it is not focused on the Museum of Natural History. And there is no Constance.
The trademark subtle humour returns intertwined with a pretty serious plot. The one negative for me were little changes in Pendergast’s character.
Fever Dream is a great whodunnit. Pendergast finds out that his wife was murdered rather than being killed in a hunting accident. So he gets on the trail along with D’Agosta.
This book has all the trademarks of a good Pendergast story — an intriguing mystery, a new antagonist, some great action, subtle humour and a deep look into Pendergast’s background. Specifically, I liked how Pendergast shows the same characteristics as Diogenes towards the climax of the book.
I am looking forward to the next book in this new trilogy.
This book is an non-standard Pendergast since it is essentially an action thriller rather than a mystery. Somehow in the last few books, Pendergast has slowly switched from being an intellectual type who is a marksman, to being Mitch Rapp. I find that this is slowly reducing the appeal of this series since it seeks to compete in a genre where there are much better ones available. I come to Pendergast because it is creepy and there is a mystery to be solved, not because I want to read about the antics of an unstoppable machine.
Other than this gripe, the other essentials still remain. The writing is excellent with some great humour. Overall, this is an ok book.
Two Graves is a damp squib of a finale to the ‘Helen’ trilogy. For a trilogy that started off well, it ends up being another Nazi fest with a massive deux ex machina at the climax. There is too little detection and too many slug fests.
I am also starting to dislike Pendergast as a character. In the beginning of the series, his eccentricities were fun but at the core he appeared to be a decent guy. This book brings out the worst in him and he goes out of his way to piss people off. Unfortunately, barring what he does at the moment, there is no real growth as a a character. Has he learnt something? Is there a moment of self-awareness? Nope.
Again, another so-so entry in the Pendergast series.
Extraction is a delightfully creepy novella which manages to pack more content in it than any of the last 5–6 books in the series. It gives us a closer look at the relationship between Pendergast and his brother. And wonder of wonders, Pendergast actually realises and articulates what a shite of an elder brother he was. The plot is quite reminiscent of the tooth fairy from the Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
In conclusion, Extraction rings all the right bells.
White Fire is a juicy mystery wrapped in Sherlockiana, with a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes story to boot. It is basically Preston and Child’s acknowledgement of the fact that Pendergast has drawn heavily from Holmes.
This story has all the classic Pendergast elements going for it — a bunch of gory killings, an isolated place, some returning characters, great writing and Pendergast is not being as much of a dick as he’s being lately. But, a couple of things bothered me. The first issue is how the final act relies on the stupidity of a main character to advance (which feels like lazy writing to me) . The second is a Hardy Boys type ending where we think someone is killed but is not actually. This plot device has been used repeatedly in the series and it bugs the hell out of me.
But still, on the whole, this book is great.
Blue Labyrinth left me feeling unsatisfied. It starts off well but then it meanders all over the place.
For some reason, Margo Green makes an appearance and is now an ethnobotanist because you know — plot. Alban magically reverses 15 years of brainwashing. And Constance suddenly becomes talented at spec ops. There is one intriguing new character who is introduced but he is promptly killed off. WTF! Preston & Child have literally lost the plot here.
Anyway, for a while I thought this book was a homage to ‘The Dying Detective’ but alas it is not.
Overall, a big fat MEH!
Crimson Shore is another classic Pendergast — a good mystery, the creep factor, great writing and a tense climax. There are shout-outs to The Hound of the Baskervilles but I found that this book reminded me more of the Cthulhu mythos as well as Stephen King’s Bangor setting (if that makes sense).
The actual plot is bought to a conclusion about three quarters of the way in. The rest of the book is devoted to setting up a return of a character. In fact, I think this might be the shortest Pendergast so far even if we include the extra fluff towards the end.
Overall, a decent Pendergast but not the best. That is still reserved for the first four books.
The Obsidian Chamber wildly oscillates between being seriously awesome and downright stupid. I liked the start of the book — like most Pendergast novels, the first act tends to be fast paced and drags the reader into the story. But then, like most Pendergast novels, the rest of the acts start dragging.
A couple of points to note — Pendergast finally realizes that he is responsible for Diogenes. The second is the bloody sitcom like relationship Pendergast & Constance have. I hate this in sitcoms and I specifically hate it happening here. Why o why?
Overall, I consider this an average Pendergast at best.
City of Endless Night is a throwback to the vintage Pendergast days. Similar to other books in this series, this book starts off strongly. The good thing is that this strong act 1 continues to the end of the book with a great climax. I liked this book because I did not see the ending and because there is only page with the Constance-Pendergast sitcom romance in it.
Originally published at Digital Amrit.