Monday, May 11, 2009

Review – “Cemetery Dance” by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

William Smithback, a New York Times reporter, and his wife Nora Kelly, a Museum of Natural History archaeologist, are brutally attacked in their apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Eyewitnesses claim, and the security camera confirms, that the assailant was their strange, sinister neighbour - a man who, by all reports, was already dead and buried weeks earlier. While Captain Laura Hayward leads the official investigation, Pendergast and Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta undertake their own private-and decidedly unorthodox-quest for the truth. Their serpentine journey takes them to an enclave of Manhattan they never imagined could exist: a secretive, reclusive cult of Obeah and vodou which no outsiders have ever survived.
Cemetery Dance is the ninth appearance of FBI Special Agent Pendergast in this series of crime thrillers that often have supernatural or macabre themes. Other than having seen the film (which I quite liked) based on the first book The Relic (1997 with Penelope Ann Miller and Tom Sizemore), I had not previously read any of the books from this series. Voodoo is heavily featured in Cemetery Dance with the anticipated zombies, cults, murders and frenetic action. Although the use of voodoo lies in well-worn murder mystery territory, I am happy to say there are plenty of fresh twists and turns and unexpected outcomes.

But the real strength of this novel and I suspect the durability of the series is the characters. Top of the list is the elusive and mysterious Pendergast who combines elements of Sherlock Holmes, McGyver and any number of intellectual mystics. He is wealthy with enormous resources available at his disposal and an endless list of contacts and sources for the ordinary and arcane. Despite his role as a central character from previous books, I found myself engaged but never at a loss when references were made to past events. If anything it reinforces the mystery and exotic nature of his personality.

Relationships are particularly well-handled. The opening chapters quickly establish Nora and William’s intense love for one another and William’s shocking murder definitely pulled at the heartstrings as did her farewell near the conclusion. No need to have met these two before. Similarly, D’Agosta the primary investigating detective is likable, open-minded and able to think outside the box which he must frequently do to work successfully with Pendergast who likes to work off the radar and the beaten path. Clearly there is also history between D’Agosta and Laura with some intimate moments that make me want to go back and catch the earlier books in which they appear together.

The scenes involving the enclave/cult they investigate are particularly creepy and sinister adding significantly to the constant tension and drama. It is obvious that Preston & Child have done their research with lots of wonderful New York historical detail, authentic seeming Obeah and vodou rituals and references as well as refreshing coverage of forensic procedures.

Cemetery Dance is flawed to some degree as well. I found the portrayal of many of the law enforcement and city official bureaucrats played too heavily on incompetence or corruption to allow certain situations to develop and evolve. Even some of our main characters go solo at times, putting the investigation and their safety at risk despite better judgment, experience and access to resources. In other words I had few more moments of “Why on earth would he/she do that?” than I would normally expect.

Nevertheless Cemetery Dance is an above-average thriller that I would recommend on the basis of its' fascinating set of characters alone. They are easy to care about. I will definitely be reading from the backlist and look forward to the next Pendergast exploit.


Grand Central Publishing
Published: May 12, 2009
ISBN #: 9780446580298
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 421

Read excerpts from Chapters 1 to 9.

The Pendergast Novels:

  1. Relic (1995)
  2. Reliquary (1997)
  3. The Cabinet of Curiosities (2002)
  4. Still Life with Crows (2003)
  5. Diogenes Trilogy: Brimstone (2004)
  6. Diogenes Trilogy: Dance of Death (2005)
  7. Diogenes Trilogy: The Book of the Dead (2006)
  8. The Wheel of Darkness (2007)
  9. Cemetery Dance (2009)


  1. It's a shame that nobody bothered to comment on this. Actually this book is all that I do not read: law enforcement and voodoo, but I like gruesome, so if by any divine powers this book would materialize in front of me, it will be read. Thanks for the review. BTW have you ever wondered how the whole collaboration works? I am curious, cause every person has a distinctive thought pattern and with writers it's quite hard to get the sync part in. Do you sense some inconsistencies in that department?

  2. Just catching up on some back posts and saw this!

    I originally read the first 2 books back when they were first published, and always meant to get back to this series. I finally did about a month ago, listening to the audiobook of book 2 as a refresher. I have to say, this series is well worth reading the backlist to get the characters' history. I love Pendergast, and the fresh look he brings to the same old crime-solving story.

    I'm glad to see that this far down the line, the series remains solid.

  3. Harry collaborations are kind of unique. I am sure there must be interviews with these authors that illuminates their writing process but I haven't read any. Personally I have never noticed any inconsistencies in these types of books that would suggest different parts by different authors.

    Hi Renee I have 4 or 5 more of their backlist sitting in my TBR pile which I hope to get to. I definitely want to read more about these characters.


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