Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s CEMETERY DANCE opens with a particularly bloody and grisly murder. New York Times reporter William Smithback is attacked in his fancy Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, while his Museum of Natural History anthropologist wife, Nora Kelly, is out getting their anniversary cake. She returns to find her husband dead and the killer standing over him with his knife dripping blood. When he sees Nora, he attempts to kill her too --- but she survives. Neighbors, the doorman and an indisputable security tape enable Nora to identify the murderer as Colin Fearing. A sometime actor and resident in their building, he is reclusive and no one really knows anything about him. But the eyewitnesses and the tape will help the detectives who must catch him.
Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta caught the case, and as he is waiting for the crime scene investigators to leave, in walks FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast. These two are the series characters Preston and Child created eight books ago, and in their ninth appearance they still make a great team. Smithback has also worked closely with them, but his link to the other two is now dead. D'Agosta and Pendergast take his murder very personally and admit they will miss him. While Captain Laura Hayward leads the investigation, the lieutenant and the FBI agent will not stop until his assailant is caught, even if they have to use unorthodox means to get the job done.
As the story continues to unfold, the team confronts the medical examiner, who is cold and defensive. He swears that Fearing is the man whose autopsy he completed and who was identified by his sister. But Pendergast is holding New York’s official death certificate of Fearing, who was pulled out of the Harlem River 10 days before this attack. Who was the man autopsied on the slab and interred? An exhumation is necessary; when the tomb is open it’s empty, except for something they never expected to find.
At this point, Nora tells Pendergast and D’Agosta that Smithback had gotten some threatening letters, and they found odd messages scribbled in the dust near their apartment along with a strange kind of coffin-like charm. Pendergast knows that these are not voodoo symbols at all; they are a different kind of “black magic” called Obeah, a “West Indian Zombii cult that believes in sorcery, and re-animation of the human body.”
It seems that New York City is a hotbed of followers of this cult and their belief system. Smithback was doing a series of investigative newspaper articles exposing these societies, which could be a motive for his murder. The focus of his work was the Ville and its inhabitants. The structure is made out of attached buildings that encircle a broken down church. Turrets, walls, gates and dark shadows are what can be seen from the outside. The inside is a mass of tunnels, niches, rooms, hiding places and a main room for sacrifices.
In her zeal to find her husband’s killer, Nora goes to the northernmost part of Manhattan and struggles through the last heavily wooded land left in the city. She sees the Ville but realizes she may not be alone. Enter Caitlyn Kidd, a reporter for the West Sider, who knew Smithback and liked him. She wants to team up with Nora to help solve the case. One night they both straddle fences and walk through dead leaves to get as close to the Ville as they can. But out of the dark comes a huge ungainly “monster” that is clearly out for their blood --- the same kind of creature that killed Smithback. They barely escape with their lives.
Soon after that, Nora must attend a social event where her husband is being honored and Caitlyn is the Mistress of Ceremonies. But as soon as Caitlyn takes to the podium, everyone is struck still as a “reincarnation” of Smithback comes staggering into the room holding a knife in his smelly deformed hand and kills her. No one was able to move to stop him or go after him. How is it possible for the dead man to be walking and committing murder? Nora is devastated.
CEMETERY DANCE is rich with the history and atmosphere of New York City. As the clues pile up, they need to be woven together to get a clear picture of what is really going on. The Ville is supposedly the place where animal sacrifices take place; the “congregation” of men who make up the cult have no problem using violence to protect their perverted secrets. In the meantime, the CEO of a high tech business comes into the sites of Pendergast and D’Agosta when they realize that Smithback wrote a story about him that got him fired. He too has no scruples and could be behind the mounting murders.
Readers will find themselves unable to turn the pages of this superbly suspenseful story fast enough. What is real and what is fiction? After all, Pendergast is from Louisiana and knows all about black magic and its effect on believers. And after a curse is put on the investigators one by one, they all seem to fall ill.
All of the characters are fully fleshed out, and each has distinguishing traits. Pendergast is a silent hero and a man full of himself, but so humane he cannot let a wrong go un-righted. He is secretive, rich, mysterious, kind and brilliant. D’Agosta is a stand-up cop who idolizes Pendergast. Over time he has developed his own sense of style and confidence. Readers are brought into the story from the first sentence and are privy to the thinking of these two crime fighters.
Preston and Child write: “…it seems the more novels we write together, the more ‘bleed-through’ occurs between the characters and events that comprise them all…. we have slowly been building up a universe in which all the characters in our novels, and the experiences they have, take place and overlap. Reading the novels in a particular order, however, is rarely necessary.” And this is so true. All of the Pendergast novels can be read as stand-alones or as a series, which gives readers a great advantage in exploring the work of this wonderful collaborative team.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on December 26, 2010