Book Review: Verses for the Dead – by Preston & Child

Pendergast #18

Thriller, Mystery

Grand Central Publishing; December 31, 2018

337 pages (HC)

3.3 / 5 ✪

The Preston & Child, Agent Pendergast books have ever blended thriller with mystery, their novels typically lending a supernatural air. While some have taken it further than others—Relic, Reliquary, Cabinet of Curiosities, Wheel of Darkness, etc pushed the limits of realism with elements that could not be easily explained away by science—others, like the last several, have hinted at a supernatural element, which just turned out to be some other nonsense. In fact, the last 5 (since White Fire, which I actually enjoyed) have been crap.

I mean… not good.

Verses for the Dead continues that trend in an unorthodox manner. Initially, it tries something different, something aimed to revitalize the series. For the first time, Pendergast is paired with a partner; a Special Agent Coldmoon, denizen of the Lakota population of South Dakota. I actually fairly well enjoyed his character, even after the authors decided to try and ruin it. More importantly, the addition of him as a partner changed the story—kinda. I mean, it TRIED, but ultimately really doesn’t do anything new.

The story begins with a series of possibly paranormal, possibly serial murders, each where the heart is removed and placed atop the graves of women long dead. With the placement of each heart, there are also letters, each hinting at remorse over their deaths. Expectedly, Pendergast’s perusal of each site reveals new information on the killer, something that may turn the investigation in a completely new direction. Along the way there is the usual incompetence of various agencies, bodies and whatnot; citizens acting like idiots, assholes; while Coldmoon strides through it all like a simple man. This was actually the most refreshing part of the book, at least for a time. Coldmoon drinking cowboy coffee and snacking on Twinkies while alluding to sports, TV and other normal activities. Up until the point the authors doubled-down on the Lakota background.

Coldmoon is half-Italian and Lakota. I can see that growing up on a rez caused him to rebel against his European roots, diving fully into Lakota culture and mythos. Know a few people who’ve done the same, even. It’s more that… his standing with the government. The government and the indigenous populations have never really got on. I mean, there’s the Smallpox blankets thing. Then the reservations. Then the constantly shrinking reservations. Then the whole Indigenous Rights declaration thing. And years of unethical, horrid treatment. Not to mention the whole poverty, racism and about a million-other-things thing. To put it simply, the government and the indigenous people don’t really see eye to eye. So it’s unlikely that a character like Coldmoon could bridge both worlds; as a beloved member of his local community, and a CIA favorite and up-and-comer.

All the while, Pendergast was Pendergast.

And Pendergast. It occurs to me now that I’ve really been frustrated by his character of late. While early in the series Pendergast was more of a figure out of legend: mysterious, aloof, stoic, a lone wolf—nowadays he seems more elitist and erudite than aloof and mysterious, while his lone wolf tendencies appear no more than a belief that he alone has the mental faculties to solve whatever crime. Of course, I’m not being fair. It could just be his character development at work, moving in a direction I’m not a fan of.

I’m avoiding the real issue, though. The real issue is the plot. More importantly—the end. It’s shit. Like… terrible. I won’t ruin it. Let’s just say that as with some of the other recent Pendergast novels, the authors wait until a point where you think you might know what’s going on, then have an “well you’re all wrong!” moment and introduce a whole bunch of previously unreleased info and flip the story on its head. To say it was disappointing is an understatement. It literally left a bad taste in my mouth and soured the rest of the book for me.

I’d been a diehard until right around Crimson Shore. Since then I’ve gotten the books used or at the library, but this may be the last one I read. Moreso, it might be time to consider retiring Pendergast to a ranch somewhere. Where he can brush up on his obscure playwrights, dead languages and wine identification. Or drive cattle. I know that the whole Gideon Crew thing didn’t work out as a successor, but maybe Nora Kelly will be different. If you’re curious or hopeful like me, her new spinoff debuts August 20, 2019.

Here’s hoping.

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