Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
In Chapter 47 of their latest novel, Fever Dream, authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child shed light upon their technique for creating mysterious and engaging thrillers.
To NYPD’s Captain Laura Hayward, a stand-in, at this point in the story, for the reader, who may be as mystified as to the protagonist’s actions as Hayward herself, the investigation that her boyfriend, homicide detective Lieutenant Vincent (“Vinnie”) D’Agosta, and his friend, the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, are conducting concerning the murder, twelve years ago, of Pendergast’s wife, Helen, seems to be “a typical Pendergast investigation, all hunches and blind alleys and conflicting evidence, strung together by highly questionable police work” (235).
However, from the author’s perspective (and from Hayward’s as well, once Pendergast explains his and D’Agosta’s findings to date), “the bizarre story” has “an internal logic,” for Preston and Child, of course, have plotted the story in full, in advance of their writing a single word of it. However, because they withhold relevant information from the reader, supplying key material in a piecemeal fashion, the authors deny both D’Agosta, Pendergast, and the reader the very context that the writers have had from the beginning. As a result, “the bizarre story” they tell, through Pendergast, has “an internal logic” to them, but not to the reader (or, initially, to the investigators or to Hayward, before she is clued in).
Of course, eventually, Preston and Child must allow their protagonist, with the help of D’Agosta, to figure out at least something of what is going on--in other words, to causally connect the pieces of evidence and the clues that the investigators discover--and, to gain Hayward’s confidence when he needs her to take over D’Agosta’s role as his assistant, following the lieutenant’s being gravely wounded, Pendergast shares his theory concerning the significance of the evidence:
. . . Pendergast explained his late wife’s obsession with Audubon; how they had traced her interest in the Carolina Parakeet, the Black Frame, the lost parrot, and the strange fate of the Doane family. He read her passages from the Doane girl’s diary: a chilling descent into madness. He described their encounter with Blast, another seeker of the Black Frame, himself recently murdered--as had been Helen Pendergast’s former employer at Doctors With Wings, Morris Blackletter. And finally, he explained the series of deductions and discoveries that led to the unearthing of the Black Frame itself (235).In Fever Dream, the authors also suggest an analogy (not an especially original one, but one which is, nevertheless, illuminating) concerning their narrative technique. Due to his association with Pendergast, D’Agosta has learned, “long ago. . . to never get caught without two things: a gun and a flashlight” (138). As if the investigators were in a darkened room throughout their investigation, most of the contents of the room (the facts and clues of the investigation) are unseen (unknown, overlooked, or not understood). Therefore, facts, clues, and other pertinent information are brought to light (discovered or recognized as relevant) only a little at a time, as the flashlight’s beam (perception, comprehension, analysis, and evaluation) exposes them--and, when it does expose them, these pieces of evidence are usually not in any apparent logical or systematic order. As a result, both to the investigators and the reader at the moment that the evidence is gleaned), it may well seem that the investigators are, indeed, pursuing “hunches,” following “blind alleys,” and collecting “conflicting evidence” blindly and haphazardly. It is only after they have gathered the evidence, determined its significance, and interpreted its meaning that D’Agosta and Prendergast (mostly Pendergast) can develop a theory that fully illuminates their findings so that their work (or their “bizarre story”) begins to have “an internal logic.”
In his discussion with Hayward at his estate, following D’Agosta’s grave injury, Pendergast, in fact, models his method, deducing the meaning (and thereby providing the explanation for) “the central mystery of the case, the birds,” linking Audubon’s illness (the cause of his genius as a painter) to Helen’s discovery of the same link between Audubon’s genius and his sickness:
“And all she wanted with the painting was confirmation for this theory?” [Hayward asks Pendergast].Nor is Pendergast through with demonstrating his powers of deduction, for he next links the birds to the Doane family’s artistic brilliance and the madness to which they later succumbed, citing significant “similarities” between the family’s behavior and Audubon’s own conduct:
Pendergast nodded. “That painting is the link between Audubon’s early, indifferent work and his later brilliance. It’s proof of the transition he underwent. But that doesn’t quite get to the central mystery in this case: the birds.”
Hayward frowned. “The birds?”
“The Carolina Parakeets. The Doane parrot.”
Hayward herself had been puzzling over the connection to Audubon’s illness, to no avail. “And?”
Pendergast sipped his coffee. “I believe we’re dealing with a strain of avian flu.”
“Avian flu? You mean, bird flu?”
“That, I believe, is the disease that laid Audubon low, that nearly killed him, and that was responsible for his creative flowering. His symptoms--high fever, headache, delirium, cough--are all consistent with flu. A flu he no doubt caught dissecting a Carolina Parakeet” (236).
“But all that still doesn’t explain how those parakeets [the Carolina Parakeet specimens Helen stole from the Audubon collection] are linked to the Doane family” [Hayward declares to Pendergast].He is also certain that Helen had known the same cause-and-effect relationship between the birds and the flowering genius (and madness) of both Audubon and the Doane family, which is why she visited the museum housing specimens of birds personally preserved by Audubon and why she visited the Doane family, stealing both museum specimens and the parrot that the Doane family had found and adopted as a pet. Helen had meant, Pendergast contends, to “extract from them [the birds] a live sample” of the avian virus, both to “keep it from spreading” and “to test it. . . to confirm her suspicions” that the virus was what had caused the artist’s and family members’ artistic genius and subsequent madness. Helen’s knowledge is attested to, Pendergast says, by the precautions she had taken to avoid infecting herself with the virus:
“It’s quite simple” [Pendergast explains]. The Doanes were sickened by the same disease that struck Audubon.”
“What makes you say that?”
“There are simply too many similarities, Captain, for anything else to make sense. The sudden flowering of creative brilliance. Followed by mental dissolution. Too many similarities--and Helen knew it. That’s why she went to get the bird from them [the Doanes]” (237).
“. . . She wore leather gloves, and she stuffed the bird and its cage into a garbage bag. Why? Initially, I assumed the bag was simply for concealment. But it was to keep herself and her car from contamination” [Pendergast tells Hayward].Preston and Child do not merely have characters discuss past investigative findings. The authors also use dialogue between their characters to present rhetorical questions pertaining to as-yet-undiscovered aspects and implications of the investigation, as in this exchange between Pendergast and Hayward, wherein the reader is advised, as it were, of three other, related questions implicit in the case:
“And the leather gloves?’
“Worn no doubt to conceal a pair of medical gloves beneath. Helen was trying to remove a viral vector from the human population. No doubt the bird, cage, and bag were all incinerated--after she’d taken the necessary samples, of course” (237-38).
“Isn’t there another question you’re forgetting?” Hayward asked.Masters of their craft, Preston and Child show how, in skilled hands, authors can provide data without context, piece together a theory that, using deductive and inductive reasoning to analyze causes and effects and to infer implications concerning the significance and meaning of such evidence, explains criminal undertakings and their perpetrators’ motives and goals while, at the same time, keeping unresolved questions that are important to the developing case before the reader’s mind. Whether an aspiring author writes horror fiction or thrillers, he or she can learn a good deal from the example of such masterful storytellers.
Pendergast looked at her.
“You say Helen stole the parrots Audubon studied--the ones that supposedly sickened him. Helen also visited the Doane family and stole their parrot--because, as you also say, she knew it was infected. By inference, Helen is the common thread that binds the two events. So aren’t you curious what role she might have had in the sequencing and inoculation?” (238)