Famed naturalist John James Audubon was a French-American ornithologist, hunter and painter. He was most famous for his paintings of North American birds that he also catalogued and wrote about throughout his life. It is the latter years of his life and his love of birds that are at the heart of FEVER DREAM, the latest thriller in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s continuing series featuring FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast.
FEVER DREAM opens with an event that occurred 12 years previously. When word spread amongst their camp in Zambria that a German tourist had been dragged into the jungle by a large lion and feared slain, Pendergast and his wife, Helen, were called to action to see if any remains were to be found. What was most intriguing to Pendergast was the fact that the lion in question was described as being abnormally large and bearing a fire-red mane. The same such lion terrorized that area 40 years earlier and has become the subject of terrifying local legend.
During their journey into the jungle, Pendergast and Helen were both attacked by the very same lion. They bravely fought it off as best they could, but the beast was just too powerful for them. In the end, Pendergast awakened in a village hospital suffering from wounds he received. Most regrettably was the fact that Helen was dragged off and there was no sign of her. Pendergast hastened his recovery and stormed off after any trace of her or the lion. He was horrified when he located her remains and the lion that perpetrated the deed not far away. Little does he realize at the time that this deadly attack may have been a setup, and what appeared to be a hazard of the African wild may actually have been cold-blooded murder.
Pendergast discovers while going through the gun collection at his Louisiana residence that the rifle Helen had used during their excursion was actually filled with blanks. He quickly jumps to the conclusion that more was at play here and heads directly up to New York City to solicit the assistance of his frequent collaborator, Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta. Offering to pay his wages and cover his benefits for how ever long their personal investigation takes, Pendergast persuades D’Agosta to take a leave of absence and join him in the search for the truth behind Helen’s death.
The story moves at a fast pace, as do most of Preston and Child’s works, and the reader is hurried along to Africa, Maine, and hidden areas of the American South as Pendergast and D’Agosta track every clue they uncover to build a compelling case. As with many mysteries of this type, Pendergast quickly discovers that he did not know everything about his wife. In particular, she was seemingly obsessed with John James Audubon. Specifically, she spent a great deal of time in a private search for a long-lost painting Audubon allegedly did in his last days known only as the Black Frame.
It would not be a Preston and Child novel if there were not intricate research and a Crichton-like medical and technological basis underlying their plot’s foundation. Was Helen actually obsessed with the Black Frame painting itself, or could she have been looking for something altogether different that the style of the painting might represent? Pendergast and D’Agosta begin to realize that the ironic focus Audubon had on birds might have led to the illness that claimed his own life and also may be behind top-secret and deadly medical research perpetrated by a pharmaceutical research company with ties to both Audubon and Helen.
During the course of the novel, Pendergast must solicit the assistance of his former brother-in-law as well as D’Agosta’s co-worker and love interest, Captain Laura Heyward. All of their lives are put at risk as the secrets behind Helen’s death as well as a shocking violent incident that took place in the Louisiana bayou are the tip of the iceberg in a medical conspiracy that many influential people will kill to keep hidden. Preston and Child have created a top-notch mystery that still follows along with the formula of their previous classic thrillers.
A side-bar plotline involving Pendergast’s mysterious “niece,” Constance Greene, provides enough fodder for a novel of its own. With FEVER DREAM, Preston and Child are at the top of their game and create a mystery so compelling that fans of their prior work will be glued to their seats. The open ending lends itself to an obvious follow-up that I look forward to reading. This is the first novel in the series that does not rely on fantastical or supernatural themes and allows them to strut their talents as engaging writers of fast-paced, intelligent fiction that never ceases to entertain.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 21, 2011