Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
In reading Fever Dream, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s latest Pendergast novel, I knew that the protagonist, Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, would not kill his wife’s murderer, despite his vow to do so, for, were he to have done such a heinous act, he would have become irredeemably unsympathetic to the reader. As an FBI agent, Pendergast, like Superman, represents “truth, justice, and the American way,” and vigilante justice, being no justice at all, has never been a part of “the American way.” That’s why, in the all-American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has Colonel Sherburn face down the mob that has come to lynch him for shooting a drunken assailant. However, my suspicion that the protagonist would not kill his wife’s killer didn’t eliminate suspense; on the contrary, I was eager to see how the authors would avoid the agent’s fulfillment of his promise, wondering whether his doing so would be believable and satisfying. I’d say that it was, on both counts. Moreover, the resolution of this particular conflict is a study in how to maintain a character’s integrity while satisfying the need for justice that a cold-blooded murder deserves.
The authors also have gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle with regard to Pendergast’s legal ward, Constance Greene. Under arrest for allegedly tossing her infant son overboard during her crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, because the child, like his father, is “evil,” she tells a psychologist that she was born in the 1870’s. How will her apparent infanticide and her absurd claim to be nearly 150 years old be resolved? Alas, in Fever Dream, neither issue is resolved. Both are left hanging, as it were, for resolution in the next (or some other future) installment in the series. The same conundrum applies to Constance as applies to Pendergast. A likeable, if eccentric, character to this point in the series, she would lose the reader’s sympathy if either the murder of her own child or the telling of an outrageous, seemingly pointless lie is left to stand. Therefore, the same challenge to the writers exists as did with regard to Pendergast’s vow to kill his wife’s killer. There must be a resolution to Constance’s apparent infanticide and to her gross lie that is both credible (that is, logical within the context of the story) and emotionally satisfying to the reader. One suspects that Preston and Child will accomplish both requirements--they usually do--but the fun, from the reader’s point of view--lies in seeing just how they pull off the feat.