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A serial killer operating in New York City over a century ago, a quest for immortality, and Agent Pendergast's family history are all intimately intertwined in the latest offering from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. When a construction company unearths the graves of 36 strangely mutilated corpses, victims of what could be America's earliest known serial killer, FBI Agent Pendergast is on the scene immediately. As readers (and characters) familiar with Pendergast know all too well, this does not bode well; the arrival of the modern-day Sherlock Holmes has twice before preceeded a series of particularly brutal and horrific killings.

With the assistance of Dr. Nora Kelly, an archaeologist at the New York Museum of Natural History, Pendergast manages to survey the scene and inspect the bodies before the skeletonized remains are hauled off by the coroner's office. They bear the marks of a very specialized and ultimately fatal surgery, begun while the victim was still alive. When journalist Bill Smithback uses his relationship with Nora to get inside information on the historic killings, all hell breaks loose. A fresh victim turns up in Central Park, with exactly the same surgical mutilations. The police start searching for a copycat killer stirred up by the detailed descriptions of the original killings in Smithback's article, but Pendergast, for reasons he declines to share, feels it's more important to discover the identity of the original killer. Is it possible the man the papers have dubbed "the Surgeon" is the same man who entombed 36 people some 120 years before?

Pendergast delves ever deeper into the history of New York City, the museum itself, and the "cabinets of curiosity" that once dotted the city, providing part museum, part haunted house entertainment to the masses. The search for the historical killer's identity also leads Pendergast to his own family's dark past in New Orleans. As he and his group grow ever closer to finding "the Surgeon" and discovering his dark agenda, the Surgeon fights back, launching attacks on each of them he can reach.

Agent Pendergast as been one of my favorite characters in any book since I first read Relic, and I was thrilled to see him return once again. Even better, in The Cabinet of Curiosities we learn far more about him than was ever revealed, but Preston and Child manage to continue to preserve his air of mystery to the last. A perfect example of this is how they reveal his initials, almost in passing, but still don't tell us his given name. The enigmatic FBI agent reminds me of the character Hawk in Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, though the two are in many ways exact opposites. Pendergast seems to know almost anything he needs to know about a broad variety of subjects, from classical music, to human anatomy, to abnormal psychology. He keeps his past and his emotions to himself, and is a perfect chameleon in his dealings with other people, knowing when to let his smooth charm work on one person and when to play the officious FBI bureaucrat instead. I really enjoyed the reactions from other characters when they encounter the agent. Those who remember the Museum Beast murders or the creatures he helped destroy in the city's sewers start visibly when they catch sight of him, fearing (and rightly so) that his appearance means something grisly is in store.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is a maelstrom of "cross correlation," as co-author Lincoln Child calls it. More than any other Preston and Child novel to date, it contains characters from, and references to, most of their other books, from Relic to The Ice Limit. Some are obvious, like the main characters and well as the inevitable where-are-they-now discussion between Pendergast and Smithback about their friends from Relic and Reliquary. The subtle references, though, are much more fun. Margo Green now works for the same Genedyne that figured prominently in Mount Dragon, while Nora Kelly originally moved to New York to work for Palmer Lloyd, the multimillionaire from The Ice Limit. And, of course, there is "that ruby-colored meteorite on page 305." I had a lot of fun watching for the various cross-references, and I'm sure I'll find several more when I read the book again.

One thing I am usually pretty good at is guessing the "twist" in mystery or suspense-thriller novels, usually well before any of the characters. Preston and Child are better than most authors at hiding the secret until the climactic moment, and with this novel they managed to pull it off. They lead Pendergast (and the reader) down multiple garden paths, only to have them dead-end relatively quickly. And even I was surprised at the final confrontation between Agent Pendergast and the mysterious Dr. Leng. And I never would have guessed what the good doctor's real project was until Pendergast revealed it to us all.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is an excellent and entertaining read, showing the Preston/Child team at the height of their combined abilities. The story is extremely fast paced, and gripping enough that I read the whole thing straight through in a single sitting. As with their other novels, this one will continue to entertain on subsequent re-readings, and should make a welcome addition to any library.


Sources:
The Cabinet of Curiousities, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
http://www.prestonchild.com/

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