Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
The eleventh chapter of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Fever Dream introduces the reader to the “Wisley ‘farmstead,’” somewhere in remotest Zambia. The protagonist, the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, and his investigative partner, homicide lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta, are traveling, via ramshackle Land Rover, to their destination, somewhere “northwest of Victoria Falls”:
Everyone, it seemed, knew where the Wisley “farmstead” was. It lay at the end of a well-maintained dirt track on a gently sloping hill in the forests northwest of Victoria Falls. In fact--as Pendergast paused the decrepit vehicle just before the final bend in the road--D’Agosta thought he could hear the falls: a low, distant roar that was more sensation than sound (53).The fact that the “dirt track,” despite its location, “in the forests northwest of Victoria Falls,” in deepest Zambia, is “well-maintained” suggests that the “farmstead” that it serves belongs to a man of means, for it would be difficult, indeed, to maintain even a simple “dirt track” far in the interior of the African continent, among forests as thick as those which surround Victoria Falls. Such a “dirt track,” obviously connects the “farmstead” to such greater civilization as Zambia is able to offer, suggesting that its owner has been or expects to be in residence on his “farmstead” for some time. One wonders, of course, what Wisley might be doing in such a place. The paragraph concludes with a phrase that will communicate well to anyone who has ever been in the vicinity of a powerful waterfall, which, indeed, seems, as Preston and Child observe, to be “more sensation than sound” and helps to create a sense of immediacy for the reader, placing him or her on the scene, as it were, able both to see, to hear, and to feel the environment that the authors’ omniscient narrator describes.
The opening paragraph of Chapter 12 places us back in the United States, in “Savannah, Georgia,” as the chapter’s tagline indicates. The civilized charm of the deep South contrasts sharply with the wild beauty of the African forests, a connection with which the narrator establishes with the paragraph’s last sentence:
Whitfield Square dozed placidly in the failing light of a Monday evening. Streetlights came up, throwing the palmettos and the Spanish moss hanging from gnarled oak limbs into gauzy relief. After the cauldron-like heat of Central Africa, D’Agosta found the humid Georgia air almost a relief (62).It’s unclear as to why D’Agosta finds the cooler air “almost a relief” rather than an actual relief, but the setting’s serene, seemingly indolent tone contrasts with the “forests” and the “falls” of “Central Africa” as clearly as Georgia’s “humid” air contrasts with Zambia’s “cauldron-like heat.” Of course, the “palmettos and the Spanish moss hanging from gnarled oak limbs” also contrasts starkly with “the forests northwest of Victoria Falls” and the “distant roar” of the falls “that was more sensation than sound.” The contrast between the wilderness of Africa, in which Pendergast’s wife, Helen, was killed in a lion’s attack, and the urban environment of the postbellum South in which her murder is under investigation is as stark as villainy and goodness. This paragraph, masterfully written, contrasts not only two continents and two ways of life, but also two extremes of the moral continuum.
Chapter 13’s opening paragraph is more utilitarian, changing the scene from Savannah, Georgia to “New Orleans” as Pendergast drives into a Louisiana parking lot:
Pendergast turned the Rolls-Royce into the private parking lot on Dauphine Street, harshly lit with sodium lamps. The attendant, a man with thick ears and heavy pouches below his eyes, lowered the gate behind them and handed Prendergast a ticket, which the agent tucked in the visor (69).The authors’ description of the parking lot attendant keeps the paragraph interesting, individualizing a character that could easily have been bypassed or written off, so to speak, as merely “the attendant.” The references to his “thick ears” and to the “heavy pouches below his eyes” humanizes him. Such tags may also characterize Pendergast as someone who is trained to make note of the distinguishing features of not only criminal suspects but of everyone. As a well-trained and experienced FBI agent, little that goes on around him is lost to Pendergast; his mind seems to have assumed the efficiency of a surveillance camera in recording the details associated with any and all particular persons, places, and things, including even a parking lot attendant whom Pendergast is unlikely to see again for a long time to come, if ever.
The opening paragraphs to chapters 11 through 13, like those which have come before, show how adroitly and purposefully accomplished writers of the likes of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child make use of descriptive, introductory text. These authors’ style and technique are certainly worthy of study by anyone who writes or wishes to write thrillers, horror stories, or fiction of any other genre.