Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
The opening paragraph of Chapter 17 of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Fever Dream locates the current action in New Orleans’ Tulane University, as the protagonist arrives at the school’s Health Sciences Center, downtown, on Tulane Street, to visit Miriam Kendall. The link between the building and “New York’s financial district” links the action of the novel that occurs in Louisiana with the action that occurs in New York:
The downtown campus of Tulane University Health Sciences Center, on Tulane Street, was housed with a nondescript gray skyscraper that would not have looked out o place in new York’s financial district. Pendergast exited the elevator at the thirty-first floor, made his way to the Women’s Health Division, and--after a few enquiries--found himself before the door of Miriam Kendall (90).Chapter 18 opens upon a tempestuous note. It also allows readers another glimpse of Pendergast’s palatial plantation house, as he makes his way to his vast collection of books. The authors’ use of such words as “moaned” and “worrying,” even though they are used to describe weather conditions, keep readers in mind of the mental anguish and worry that Pendergast is undergoing concerning his late wife’s murder and his attempt to find her killer. Likewise, a sense of the novel’s ongoing conflict is discernable in Preston and Child’s use of such verbs (again relating to the weather--at least ostensibly--and not to Pendergast per se) as “thrashing” and “beat,” and the mystery surrounding Helen’s death is underscored by the authors’ reference to the “heavy, swollen clouds” that “obscured the full moon,” just as the “the remains of a bottle”--an odd adjectival phrase, certainly--is a reminder of Helen’s remains:
Pendergast said good night to Maurice and, taking the remains of a bottle of Romanee-Conti 1964 he had opened at dinner, walked down the echoing central hall of Penumbra Plantation to the library. A storm had swept north from the Gulf of Mexico and the wind moaned about the house, worrying the shutters and thrashing the bare limbs of the surrounding trees. Rain beat on the windows, and heavy, swollen clouds obscured the full moon (95).One forgets, almost, as he or she reads the opening paragraph to Chapter 19, that the protagonist is investigating his wife’s brutal murder in Zambia nine years ago. In “Bayou Goula, Louisiana,“ as the chapter’s tagline indicates, surrounded by the trappings of a luxury hotel’s “palm-lined courtyard,” the FBI’s Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast sits as still as a sculpture, his pale complexion reinforcing the illusion that he is one of the “alabaster statues that framed the gracious space.” Far away are the African wilds--and the concrete jungle of New York, where his investigation occasionally takes him or his assistant, first NYPD’s Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta :
Pendergast sat in the palm-lined courtyard in front of the elegant hotel, one black-clad leg draped over the other, arms crossed, motionless as the alabaster statues that framed the gracious space. The previous night’s storm had passed, ushering in a warm and sunny day full of the false promise of spring. Before him lay a wide driveway of white gravel. A small army of valets and caddies were busy ferrying expensive cars and gleaming golf carts here and there. Beyond the driveway was a swimming pool, sparkling azure in the late-morning light, empty of swimmers but surrounded by sunbathers drinking bloody Marys. Beyond the pool lay an expensive golf course, immaculate fairways and raked bunkers, over which strolled men in the broad brown swath of the Mississippi River (99).The “elegance” of the hotel is emphasized by the paragraph’s allusions to “a small army of valets and caddies,” “expensive cars,” “gleaming golf carts” (and a golf course), and “a swimming pool, sparkling azure in the late-morning.” Perhaps, the reader may think, Pendergast is at a resort. If so, why, though? Isn’t he determined to find who murdered his wife and to bring the killer to justice? Perhaps Pendergast is taking a break, although such conduct would be out of character for him, as the reader has come, by way of other novels in which he appears, to know him. In any case, his sudden appearance at a luxury hotel makes readers curious and, curious, they read on, confident of finding answers to these rhetorical questions which they themselves have raised, in response to the protagonist’s unusual situation. Moreover, the authors keep the tension simmering by suggesting that, although “the previous night’s storm,” which had seemed so ominous, “had passed, ushering in a warm and sunny day,” it is a day which is, nevertheless, deceptive, a “day full of the false promise of spring.”
The opening paragraph of Chapter 20, the tagline of which locates the novel’s action in “St. Francesville, Louisiana,” shows D’Agosta as a man who is out of his element. As a homicide detective, the New York City investigator, is a member of the middle-class, moral, courageous, intelligent, and loyal, but far from wealthy or sophisticated. Nevertheless, he finds himself “in front of the white-washed mansion” known (readers learn in the next paragraph) as Oakley Plantation, having arrived not in a Porsche or a Rolls-Royce, as the wealthy Pendergast might arrive, but in a “rental car.” However, more significantly, the detective is out of his element when it comes to the assignment that Pendergast has given him. On one hand, it seems “hardly more than an errand,” although, on the other hand, it involves a subject matter that is beyond his experience, relating, as it does, to “dead birds”:
D’Agosta pulled up in front of the white-washed mansion, rising in airy formality from dead flower beds and bare-branched trees. The winter sky spat rain, puddles collecting on the blacktop. He sat up in the rental car for a moment, listening to the last lousy lines of “Just You and I” on the radio, trying to overcome his annoyance a having been sent on what was hardly more than an errand. What the hell did he know about dead birds? (106)It is obvious that D’Agosta does not relish his present assignment. He thinks it both beneath him and beyond him. The weather seems to agree, for “the winter sky,” readers observe spit “rain,” as if to indicate its derision for the detective’s present mission. This paragraph accomplishes what Preston and Child often do, involving a character in a situation for which he or she seems ill-equipped, almost invariably going on to show, during the remainder of the chapter, just how well, as a matter of fact, the character is equipped (although neither he or she nor the reader would have likely believed this to be the case at the outset of the chapter) to resolve the situation’s dilemma or problem--and, of course, D’Agosta will prove more than a match for the situation involving the ‘dead birds.” (If he were not, Pendergast would not have dispatched him to attend to it.)
Having analyzed the opening chapters of twenty of Preston and Child’s Fever Dream, or twenty-five percent of the eighty chapters of which the novel, as a whole, is comprised, I believe that I have provided a representative sample of their opening-chapter techniques, and I plan to move on to other matters. However, one additional post concerning these authors’ use of opening chapters will follow, recapitulating the authors’ accomplishments in the use of the techniques I have identified and discussed.
Until then, sweet dreams. . . .