Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
The fourth chapter of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Fever Dream does not begin with a tagline that identifies the action’s location, for the action continues in the setting that was identified in the previous chapter’s tagline, that of “The Fever Trees.” The chapter’s opening paragraph opens in media res, or in the middle of things, with the protagonist’s regaining consciousness:
The world came back into focus. Pendergast was in one of the rondevaals. The distant throb of a chopper sounded through the thatch roof, rapidly increasing in volume (22).The authors again prove their adroitness at marrying action to emotion and, indeed, action to a specific character’s own current dilemma or perceptions. The helicopter’s “throb” mirrors the throbbing that, readers might suspect, Pendergast himself feels after having just been mauled by a huge and vicious lion. In addition, the fact that the sound of the aircraft’s engine “rapidly” increases “in volume” suggests that it is arriving, not departing, and again makes readers share the protagonist’s perspective: Pendergast hears the approaching “chopper,” as do the novel’s readers. It is as if the aircraft is coming for them as much as for him.
The scene shifts in Chapter 5, as its tagline informs readers, from Africa to “St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.” The paragraph’s allusion to luxury automobiles, to a palatial “plantation house,” and to the estate’s being listed “on the National Register of Historic Places” indicates that whoever is traveling in such an automobile to such a destination probably him- or herself (himself, as it turns out, for the next paragraph makes the character’s identity--protagonist “A. X. L. Pendergast”--clear)a man or woman of means and status:
The Rolls-Royce Grey Ghost crept around the circular drive, the crisp crunch of gravel under the tires muffled in places by patches of crabgrass. The motorcar was followed by a late-model Mercedes, in silver. Both vehicles came to a stop before a Greek revival plantation house, framed by ancient black oaks draped in fingers of Spanish moss. A small bronze plaque screwed into the façade announced that the mansion was known as Penumbra; that it had been built in 1821 by the Pendergast family; and that it was on the National Register of Historic Places (24).Chapter 6 transports the reader, its tagline declares, to “New York City,” introducing a recurring character, Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta, who is busy investigating a murder scene. For readers for whom Fever Dream is the first of the Pendergast series of novels, D’Agosta will appear to be a new character; those who have read other novels in the series will recognize him as a friend and sometimes-ally of Pendergast. The paragraph is matter-of-fact in style, depicting the crime scene with the dispassionate and objective manner of a motion picture camera. Employing, as the rest of the novel does, an omniscient narrator, the paragraph’s impartial reporting of the scene indicates D’Agosta’s own professionally detached observation of the scene. Here, readers will think, is a man who is used to investigating murders.
Four AM, Saturday, Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta pushed through the crowd, ducked under a crime-scene tape, and walked over to where the body lay sprawled across the sidewalk outside one of the countless identical Indian restaurants on East 6th Street. A large pool of blood had collected beneath it, reflecting the red and purple neon light in the restaurant’s grimy window with surreal splendor (32).(Readers may--or may not--learn more about this seemingly casually referenced death; the authors sometimes include a future incident that bears upon or is in some way related to such a seemingly random event as this murder of an as-yet anonymous individual; other times, such an incident as the one described in this opening paragraph is a stand-alone occurrence, unrelated to future narrative events. By sometimes connecting such an incident to another, future event and sometimes not making such an association, Preston and Child keep their readers guessing.) In either case, the investigation of a murder scene is an interesting way to introduce a character and a good way to suggest his expertise as an investigator.
Once again, the authors show their substantial talent for making a single paragraph perform several functions--in the cases of the three cited in this post, identifying readers’ perspective with that of the novel’s protagonist and characterizing characters by associating them each with a particular type of setting.