A Quill Pen

Dance of Death

by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

15 May 2006 book review
by Collie Collier

For the first time I've gotten a book club book which I found disappointing. I was surprised, since the book was part of a recommended series by a couple of authors who've worked together previously, so you'd think by now they've had gotten it right. However, as I noted already, I found it rather disappointing.

Only black & white

Do you remember the old Sherlock Holmes stories written by Alfred Conan Doyle? I read them as a child and enjoyed them tremendously. I still enjoy them as light fiction. However, I do not find they stand up literarily to the tests of time and life experience. As an adult, I have issues with the ease with which Mr. Holmes produces information from off screen (like a Japanese anime girl produces a hammer) to smite us over the head with his intellectual superiority.

Such conviction, such righteousness in his proclamations! Never was there doubt in his world, for everyone conveniently catered to his every detecting need. Never was a victim so dastardly as to wear a watch which kept less than perfect time! Further, no criminal would dare to smash that watch even an instant before or after the actual moment of death!

Even as a child, too, I was clearly aware of what has to be the most cruel literary line ever: "What do you make of this, Watson?!" Poor, patient, ever-doting Watson: the bumblingly supportive, perennial second fiddle to Holmes' idiosyncratic self-absorption.

I was fascinated to discover Doyle loathed his self-righteous private detective, attempting repeatedly to kill off that monstrous ego. It was the demands of his adoring public and his editor, however, which repeatedly caused Doyle to grit his teeth and once again come up with yet another increasingly fantastic excuse for his arrogant creation to live once again.

I always wondered why the public loved Holmes so. Did they not realize the disdainful contempt in which he'd hold them -- just like practically everyone else in his life? Was he, perhaps, emblematic of a morality play to them -- a sort of harsh but just avenging angel in a world full of victims of unfair sorrows?

Holier than thou

I mention Holmes specifically, because I found myself wincing repeatedly throughout Dance of Death, as I found several incidents of what appeared to be either relatively straightforward imitation, or admiring and deliberate replication, of what I personally found worst in the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Like Holmes, Pendergast is a tall, thin, pale aristocrat. How do we know he's an aristocrat? He's absurdly wealthy and dresses impeccably in ridiculously rare and expensive clothes which the average reader couldn't afford, let alone find. He knows and drinks finer wines than anyone else, and is just generally more genteelly courteous than everyone else. Also like Holmes, he has a cadre of inexplicably devoted servants and friends dedicated to his every need and willing to do absurdly stupid things in order to tend to his every whim, up to and including dumping their entire life's work and abandoning their (supposed) beloved without explanation.

Pendergast is yet more marvelous than this, however. He learned mystical Nepalese fighting ju-ju as a child, which is known by no one else and makes him somehow a better fighter than everyone else. He has no use for following the rules and yet gets things done regardless of flouting authority at every step. Finally, just like Holmes, Pendergast also has a smarter, supposedly deceased, more evil brother. Were Pendergast's brother not so deliberately disgusting I'd root for him to off this paragon of self-righteous virtue.

This Sherlockian hero-worship continues throughout the book, with several of the plot 'surprises' being presented in precisely the same manner as was common in Doyle's stories. I always have issues with authors dropping character changes or plot revelations on the readers without any sort of clue or previous warning in the story. In what way does this make for an absorbing, challenging tale, if there is nothing for the reader to recognize, even if only in hindsight? If you have a smoking gun in Act 3, you surely must have it appear in Act 1, or risk cries of foul!

A dog amongst adoring sheep

Unfortunately there was one other aspect of this book which I found profoundly irritating, and that was the almost feudal assumptions it made about people and their places in society. The women who appeared in the story were all supposedly intelligent, self-sufficient, and educated -- yet ultimately they were all behaviorally completely passive. The most aggressive of them is consistently duped by the evil brother, and apparently must have a male boss to grant her legitimacy in the eyes of the law.

The other women are simply pathetic -- despite their determined best efforts they are helpless and feeble, unable to save themselves in the face of attack. Invariably they depend on Pendergast to actually save them, as the evil brother effortlessly deceives, manipulates, overwhelms, uses, and discards them. Indeed, they are so pathetically powerless that one of them is actually emotionally shattered by being contemptuously told by the brother that she has no sweetie and is getting older. Um... excuse me? I thought the concept of women as nothing more than the arm decoration of a man went out with the 50's?!

The few men we are allowed to know are treated only minimally better, with the dog-like devotion of one being rewarded with Pendergast 'allowing' him to repeatedly endanger his life for Pendergast. Another is tricked into entering an insane asylum, supposedly 'for his own protection.' Three other male friends of Pendergast are dispatched almost off screen, mostly as plot devices whom we are not allowed to know. Indeed, we know the insane brother more than we know Pendergast himself, although even there we never find out what caused the creation of this paragon of evil. I found that a weakness of the book -- the brother's arrogant, absolutely amoral self-absorption defies understanding.

"Save us, Superman!"

I can't call this the only weakness in the book, however -- the supposedly brilliant Pendergast is not particularly attractive or approachable; we are never allowed a glimpse into his thought processes. In the end I found myself wondering a bit tiredly if the authors had created a sort of personal hero/wish-fulfillment character in Pendergast, such that it embodied an idealized form of everything they found most alluring, exciting, and desirable in their conception of manhood. If so, I can't say I'm impressed with their fantasy -- it seems to define masculine greatness as requiring everyone around them to be vulnerable, dependent, and stupid.

Reader Comments

05.24.05: Brent E.'s thoughts

(and my replies)

Often, characters like Watson are an "everyman" that the reader can identify with, and to contrast with the "hero". Dr. Watson has intelligence: he is a medical doctor. Yet, he is a bumbler, compared with Holmes.

It's a weak (but sometimes useful) literary device.

I feel if the authors must make their "everyman" an idiot in order for the hero to shine, the technique is being used extremely poorly -- and it's not my favorite 'reader identification' literary device, as is. ;)

On the other hand, your description of Dance of Death reads as if Pendergast is a Mary Sue: a primadonna who saps life and realism from every other character. (That wonderful phrase comes from http://www.subreality.com/marysue/explain.htm).

Heehee! What a great phrase! ;)

Regardless, the book sounds like the author's wish-fulfillment, rather than an interesting story. Great stories come from the weaknesses of characters; your description implies that Pendergast has none. I'll stay away from this one.

I admit, while the persons who recommended these authors encouraged me to read all the other books in the series based on this character, I find myself unfortunately quite uninterested in doing so, based on my reaction to this book.

05.24505: Marc's thoughts

(and my replies)

You never say when the story was written, or when it was supposed to take place. At least Holmes has the excuse that they were written over a century ago (except some of the last stories).

Oh! Sorry about that. This book is supposed to be set in the modern day US. The amazing Pendergast is apparently a member of the FBI in earlier books, in fact.

BTW, I haven't read the stories in quite a while, but I don't believe that Holmes ever resorted to the "broken watch" gambit.

Mm, I admit I'm not sure any more myself either. I do remember Holmes at one point stating someone's height very definitively, based on stride length and how high something was written, though. Since then I've discovered such data allows for an "envelope of opportunity" regarding guessing things like height or weight, but it certainly does not determine a perpetrator's height to the exact inch, as Holmes would have us believe! ;)

Also, remember Holmes was fooled a couple of times (once by a woman, Irene Adler), so he was never portrayed as completely infallible.

To be fair, I exaggerated somewhat for effect -- I know Holmes made mistakes sometimes in the stories. I guess that's part of what bothered me about Pendergast, though -- in the end, he really didn't make any mistakes. We even find out a dead girl wasn't really dead, due to his "clever" machinations.

Frankly, were I the girl's mother, I'd have clobbered Pendergast for making me go through the funeral. But apparently since it was all "for their own good," everyone forgives him for deceiving them all.