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Not their best, but still pretty good
on 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.