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Still Life with Crows: A Novel
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95 of 99 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 23, 2003
I've been a fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child since "Relic", and during that time I have come to expect quality writing, great characters, tons of plot twists and bizarre, unexpected endings from them. Generally speaking, "Still Life With Crows" lives up to those expectations, but the ending unfortunately falls short, and the resolution leaves some troubling holes. That's not to say this is a bad novel, but fans of the authors may find that it doesn't quite live up to their expectations.
Set in a small town in Kansas, "Still Life With Crows" has a creepy vibe from the very beginning that the authors superbly develop over the first two hundred pages. All too often, novels set in small towns are replete with stereotypes that detract from the story. Preston and Child, however, have written their best characters yet as they capture the full spectrum of small town Americana. From the sheriff is a wonderfully complex character who brilliantly plays the part of a typical rural sheriff even as he masks a deeper, more thoughtful man, to the aging local newspaperman, who is no less sophisticated than his big city counterparts, the authors weave a tapestry that draws the reader in.
At the same time, Preston and Child exercise their considerable gifts for descriptive writing. Their ability to capture the still, oppressive heat of the plains and to imbue sprawling cornfields with a latent menace is admirable. Moreover, as the town of Medicine Creek falls prey to a murderous rampage, the authors create their most genuinely scary settings since "Relic". The murders are performed in an oddly ritualistic fashion that haunts the town even as they defy explanation by traditional means.
Thus, it is no surprise that the authors call upon their familiar protagonist, Special Agent Pendergast to save the day. The difference this time is that he plays a larger role in this book than in any of his prior appearances. Thus, it is up to the authors to develop him to a much greater extent, and they do so quite successfully. It would be regrettable, but not surprising, if Pendergast took on an almost superhuman aura, considering the huge variety of his considerable faculties. Fortunately, Preston and Child have made him a true Renaissance man, but a man nonetheless; he is not superhuman, and has human flaws and frailties just like anyone else. At the same time, the authors have filled his background with mystery and regret that add to his personal legend even as they reveal other information. Thus, after four books, Pendergast is both better developed and more mysterious than he was when he first appeared in "Relic" which is no mean accomplishment.
The other difference with Pendergast this time around is that he takes on an assistant in the form of a local misfit teenager, Corrie. While this may sound horribly hackneyed, it was actually quite effective, and her development and the relationship with Pendergast were both well executed. In fact, I would go so far to as to say that Corrie is one their best character's to date, and the rare well written teenager (authors all too often get stuck in stereotypes when writing adolescents).
Unfortunately, all of this excellent stage setting and character development falls somewhat flat in the end. As the murders become more bizarre, and Medicine Creek teeters on the brink of oblivion, it is obvious that there is something unprecedented happening, possibly something that is tied to an Indian massacre in the 1870's. As the characters run down blind allies, fracture and then come together in the caves honeycombing the county, the reader is drawn into a nightmare scenario that is impossible to put down. However, when the climax is finally reached, it is too convenient at best, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example the source of the killer's preternatural strength and speed is hinted at, but never answered effectively, and the bizarre tableaus are addressed, but in a manner that seems contradictory to other information about the killer. My final complaint is that there are two or three chapters that reference events from "The Cabinet of Curiosities", and hint at an upcoming sequel, that are nothing but marketing. They add nothing to the story, in fact they distract from it, and they serve only to allude to future plotlines. I'm honestly surprised that an editor would let them through, and I hope this isn't a trend for authors whom I've come to respect.
"Still Life With Crows" isn't a bad book, in fact most of it is quite good. As I alluded to above, the authors' writing, and particularly their characterizations, continue to improve with each novel. Moreover, with this novel they have proven themselves masters of ambiance, as they deftly ratchet up the pressure and sense of ominous foreboding. Nonetheless, a book must be judged as a whole, and the conclusion of this one just isn't up to what I've come to expect from these authors. Is it awful? No, not by a mile. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes, and it's much better than most popular fiction you're likely to find. Did it live up to the high expectations I have for Preston and Child? Unfortunately no; one of the reasons why Preston and Child are among my favorite authors is because their plot twists inevitably lead in completely unexpected directions. And while their twists are better than ever in "Still Life With Crows", their denouement leaves something to be desired. This one is worth reading, but not their best.
Jake Mohlman
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
This is the fourth book by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child in which FBI Special Agent Prendergast has played a special role. In the last book (The Cabinet of Curiosities) he has been promoted to a main character. Prendergast is an almost over-cultured southern gentleman who is almost a classic model of the aesthete. He has an irritating superciliousness and an unorthodox approach that inevitably puts him at odds with the powers that be.
In Still Life With Crows, an intriguing series of killings draws Prendergast to the little town of Medicine Creek, Kansas. The killings are bizarre - a dead woman arranged in a ring of valuable arrows, a dog killed just for its tail, disemboweled and stuffed corpses. Equally eerie are the towns old legends of the Curse of the Forty-fives - a story of a ghostly band of Indians that arose from nowhere and killed the white men who were hunting them.
Prendergast inserts himself in the investigation, drafting Corrie Swanson, the town's sole Goth and trouble-maker as his chauffer and assistant. An unlikely relationship that grows slowly as Corrie's suspicions relax, almost stealing center stage from the murders.
As they have done repeatedly, Preston and Child demonstrate excellent story-telling skills building both characters and tension, filling a plot with details, creating a horror story out of cornrows and stalactites. They do have one habitual flaw, though. By halfway through the book the reader can make an intelligent guess about the nature of the murderer. Identity and motive are still a mystery, but the writers simply drop too many hints. They try to make up for this by using the last 100 pages for a frantic, high tension pursuit, but some damage cannot be undone.
Of course, this flaw is forgivable because Preston and Child are high quality writers. If you like both mystery and suspense, then you may not even notice the problem. I lean more towards the puzzle solving aspects, and so feel the solution shouldn't have been as obvious as it was. Regardless of this, I enjoyed the book, as will all but the true sticklers for deductive fiction.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Without official sanctioning, FBI Special Agent Pendergast arrives in Medicine Creek, Kansas to investigate a serial killer leaving behind eerie signatures to include a mutilated corpse inside a circle of crows "nailed" to stakes. The elegant Pendergast seems like a polished apple among cornstalks as his urbane lifestyle clearly sticks out in this rural community.
He hires as his chauffeur and overall local guide rebel without a cause teenage girl Corrie Swanson, who also sticks out in the middle of the cornfields. Additional murders occur and Pendergast, using the Bhutanese meditation technique Chongg Ran, links them to a nineteenth century Indian massacre of outlaws. As the local law enforcement resent Pendergast's interference on the case, the killer abducts Corrie forcing Pendergast to follow into the cat's cave to try to rescue his local escort before she becomes the latest victim.
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's tale is fun though STILL LIFE WITH CROWS seems like a weaker than usual entry. Pendergast is like a debonair modernized cross between Holmes and Flint with Corrie being his "Watsonette". The story line is crisp, but the killer seems unacceptable once Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs reveal the identity of the culprit. Fans of the series will appreciate the latest tale, but newcomers will be better suited to try previous works like THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIES to obtain the full rich flavor of the tea.
Harriet Klausner
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2003
I enjoyed "Still Life With Crows" more than "A Cabinet of Curiosities" but not as much as "Relic". It is a fast, fun read. Special Agent Pendergast is back and in fine form. There's a new locale, but with plenty of allusions to past Preston and Child novels. The book has some very graphic descriptions in it of gruesome murders, but other than that it's a fine mystery. I think we can look forward to another Pendergast book soon, judging by the side story with Wren and the cabinet of curiosities.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 3, 2003
When the dying town of Medicine Creek, Kansas, is beset by a series of grisly murders, FBI Special Agent Pendergast shows up and enlists the aid of a young high school outcast as he delves into the town's secrets and solves the crimes.
This is the fourth book by the talented writing team of Preston and Child to feature Pendergast, and certain aspects of this thriller were great while others were not so hot. If you are a fan of Pendergast, then the big payoff here is that there is a lot more of him; no other recurring characters (like reporter Smithback) are here, except for a short cameo by a minor character from Cabinet of Curiosities. Just eccentric, wealthy, mysterious Pendergast.
Personally, I liked seeing more of this fascinating Holmesian detective, though it's still not clear who he is, what his family history has been or how/why he continues to work for the FBI. I thought the setting of a small Kansas town surrounded on all sides by 7-foot tall corn was unusual and very creepy, and the authors continue to create interesting and complex characters. I thought the ending chase was too long, however, the solution too easy, and the murders overly gross.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 2, 2008
This is the second Agent Pendergast novel I've read (Wheel of Darkness is the other). Still Life with Crows was considerably better than Wheel of Darkness(a novel that seemed to have multiple personalities). Crows is a fast paced, disturbing, frequently funny; consistently entertaining thriller. Pendergast, with his southern gentleman charm, exotic palate, and dry humour is a great character, and the supporting cast is similarly strong; from the small town sheriff to the Goth girl sidekick Pendergast takes under his wing.

My complaints are relatively minor. The final sequence in the cave does drag on a little long. The final resolution to the gruesome murders that plague a rural Kansas town is a little too familiar. (I don't want to ruin the ending for anyone, but it's based on a premise that is all too common in the horror/thriller genre). While an explanation is provided for the bizarre murders, I think a few holes in the story remain unresolved. The epilogue also features one of the most tiresome of horror movie clichés: The `just when you thought it was safe...it isn't' moment, but these complaints are minor.

This is a very entertaining novel, in what promises to be a great series. True, the ending is a little weak, but all in all, this is a great read. Potential readers should be aware though that the murders in the novel are especially gruesome and that these novels do have shades of the supernatural and bizarre, which may not suit your tastes if you prefer your crime fiction `straight up'.

I'm a fan now of the Agent Pendergast novels and plan to keep reading them. Relic is next!
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2003
They had me. They really had me. Killer on the loose. Pendergast on the investigation. Killings with strange, inexplicable clues. Then...we reach the end of the book and...BAM...Preston/Child have now officially succumbed to Crichton Syndrome (meaning it's impossible to end a book on a high note) Without revealing the ending for those of you who will want to read it, let me just say that it's the most ridiculous, ludicrous ending that I've read in a long while. I expect so much more from these guys and they have let me down in their last 2 books. C'mon guys. I dare you to top "Relic." I dare you to surpass "Riptide." I dare you.
Please.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2003
Still Life With Crows was a very captivating read and kept me on the edge of my seat for the last half of the book! I have not read all books by Preston and Child, but this reminded me most of Relic because of the creepy atmosphere and excellent chase scene finale. The authors are very skilled writers and bring alive the town of Medicine Creek, Kansas with the summer heat, rural town life and claustrophobic cornfields. Agent Pendergast is an excellent character and the writers obviously have fun with him (also in Relic, Reliquary and Cabinet of Curiosities). Avid fans of these authors will also find a few references to previous works! All together I would recommend this book to any readers that enjoy suspense/thriller books. If you are squeamish it is a little gory at times with the descriptions of the murder scenes. But I really enjoyed the novel and the time I got to spend with these characters!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2004
The ending was so BLEAH that I couldn't give this book more than 3 stars, which actually pains me because it started out soo promising and I completely LOVE the character of Pendergast. I actually found the book really hard to put down because of the wonderful way the two author writes, the words just flow. And even though after a while, I realized really nothing much was happening in between murders, I was still fascinated, mainly because of Pendergast. But what eventually killed the book for me was the conclusion. The way Pendergast figured it out was kind of hokey; I really hated that self-hypnosis plot device which I believed was first introduced in Cabinet of Curiousities. It smelled of a cop-out to me, when it would've made so much more sense and had been so much more respectful to the character had Pendergast figured things out solely from doing old fashioned detective work, which he had been doing up to that point. Then the revelation of the identity of the murderer was nothing short of ridiculous; how it took Pendergast so long to figure something was askew is beyond me, considering where he was (I don't want to go into any more details for that will be wandering into the territory of spoilers). Lastly, it was also disappointing to see Child & Preston eventually sticking to the old stereotype about small town hick sheriffs when in the beginning, it had appeared that they wouldn't take that hackneyed route. I actually applauded when the Sheriff took over the first crime scene with just as much intelligent authority as any big-city cop would do, but alas, that image was completely undermined towards the end of the book when he started living up to the stereotype.
Anyway, I would recommend this book only because of the character of Pendergast and Child & Preston's very smooth writing style, but in terms of plot, I would give it a thumbs down.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2005
First off, let me preface my review by telling you that I've read every one of the Child/Preston books (with the exception of the most recent, Brimstone). I wouldn't have read them all if I didn't love these guys, and I do. However, this is clearly the worst and most disappointing of the bunch, and this is a crime because 2/3 of the way through the book I thought it might actually be the best.

Here's the good. Their best character, Pendergast, is back. A small town setting. Really disturbing murders and a killer who (as you read) becomes more and more mysterious. A couple scary points.

There's very little bad for the first two-thirds of the book. Some of the characters are a little weak, sure, but the plot is so involved that I was glued to the pages. In the final third, the story begins to degenerate into a copy of the last part of "Relic." A bit disheartening, but still very good.

But then...the ending (final 20-30 pages)... Honestly, it reads like a joke. There's a scene where Pendergast explains everything, and it feels like a cross between an episode of Perry Mason and Scooby-Doo. Not only is it completely improbable that Agent Pendergast would be able to figure out the killer, the idea of the killer was the lamest, and most far-fetched idea yet. It was like they got lazy when writing the end and handed the story off to a 5th grader to finish.

Even worse, the plot would occassionaly switch to NYC, where the authors described similar happenings. Thus, the reader is fascinated about how the writers will explain how the killer is able to be in two places at once? But lo and behold, "tee hee...that was all unrelated." They purposely describe NYC events to correspond with what is happening in Kansas, but never explain the NYC events. And the lame explanation of the Kansas events doesn't help.

I'm sure the NYC events will be the subject of a future plot (perhaps Brimstone), as I seem to remember another small cliff hanger in Cabinet of Curiosities. But in this book it only had the unfortunate consequence of fooling the reader into thinking the book's plot was more involved and interesting than it was. Perhaps the duo was afraid readers would guess at the lame ending if they didn't try to throw in unnecessarily distracting red herrings.

Still, I won't give up on these authors and plan on buying Brimstone when it hits paperback. If you're looking for a good story by these guys, check out some of their other works. For adventure, try "The Ice Limit" (my favorite). For a monster story, try "Relic." For a murder mystery, try "Cabinet of Curiosities." For a frustratingly incomplete plot with a juvenile resolution, try "Still Life with Crows."
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