Not-so-Special Agent Pendergast?

Zombie librarian
She wants deathly silence…
This is kind of an unusual topic for me because, frankly, I like almost everything I read. It’s not that I have no standards, and naturally I like some books more than others. But there are different books that are right for different moods. Feeling emotionally fragile?

Put down that Thomas Harris and pick up some Donna Andrews. Easily distracted? Maybe not the best time to start an Agatha Christie. Some authors you read for plot, or the great characters, because their books are thrilling, or soothing, or whatever it is you find you need at this particular moment. There’s room out there for a huge variety of books appealing to different tastes.

But boy this book was a stinker.

Cover of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Cemetary Dance
Cemetary Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
The object of my scorn is Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the ninth book in their series featuring FBI Special Agent Pendergast. I haven’t read any of the previous books, but I don’t think that was my problem.

The book begins with a brutal attack on a couple who are at home celebrating their first anniversary. A man enters the apartment, stabs the husband to death, then wounds the wife badly enough that she has to be hospitalized. A pretty attention-grabbing beginning, but the eye rolling began soon after. Because after witnessing this horrific act, after losing her practically newlywed husband, after winding up in the hospital from her own injuries, what does this woman do? She goes to work. Straight from the hospital, no less. If she were an ER doctor, I could maybe accept that. But no, she goes to her job at the museum and . . . sorts potsherds.

Really? What alternate universe have I landed in? Seriously, I can accept zombies and voodoo and monsters in the cellar of the old abandoned scary asylum, but don’t be ridiculous. Who would go to work in those circumstances? And to make matters worse, when a later scene takes place at the man’s funeral, all I could think was, well who in bloody blue blazes planned this? Because it sure wasn’t his wife!

Maybe this sounds overly critical, but to me the authors destroyed their credibility early on by having a person react to a situation in a totally unbelievable manner. This only made me pickier than I usually am, and the cardboard characters, unlikely events, and generally lackluster writing were glaring. Add in the Scooby-Doo ending (movie producers know all about making masks, right? Right?) and I could see my brain from all the eye rolling the book induced. 

There were problems in the editing, too. I’ll admit that there are only so many words to describe how a zombie walks, and while the word “shambling” may be the perfect word for your purposes, you’ve really got to mix it up a bit. It’s a word that you don’t see very often, and shouldn’t be used multiple times in the same paragraph. Another example of bad editing is this sentence: “The other man . . . was gowned in a fantastically decorated ceremonial gown.” Strip that down, and you have a guy gowned in a gown. That’s so bad, I can only imagine the Preston or Childs going, “He was gowned in a . . . um, he was something something in a gown . . . oh, hell, I’ll just put in ‘gown’ for now and change it later.”

Maybe I simply wasn’t part of the correct demographic for this book. Perhaps there is a core audience who loves tough cops and unemotional women, who enjoys the humiliation of protesters and the vilification of Hollywood types, and thinks Scooby-Doo is underrated. But bad writing and shaky plots? I don’t think there’s a fan club for those.

Image courtesy of Matthew Stewart

Cindy Harkness is a librarian, an advocate for rescued animals, and hopelessly addicted to true crime TV shows.     


  1. Elizabeth A White

    I am a fan of the Pendergast series, but agree this was an extremely disappointing and lackluster offering. Definitely not representative of the series.

    I do think, however, that having read the previous books would have affected your perception of Nora Kelly. She is not a new character to the series and if you were more familiar with her, and what she’s already been through, you’d see her behavior is not really that unbelievable for her.

    As for your other criticisms… no can defense. 😉

  2. Carol McKenzie

    While Preston and Child state it’s not necessary to read their books in any specific order, save for Relic/Reliquary and the Diogenes Trilogy, it does help to have read the previous books in chronological order.

    Nora Kelly is an established P/C character and for her to return to the security of her potsherds is not out of character for her. Bill Smithback was also a recurring character (and will be missed, at least by me), along with D’Agosta. All of them have a history that influences, but is not readily apparent, their behaviour in Cemetary Dance.

    I, too, read Cemetary Dance as my first taste of Preston & Child, and Agent Pendergast, and did find Nora’s behaviour a bit odd. But after starting at the beginning and reading through the previous books, her reaction to Smithback’s murder is in character, for her.

    And, yes, the rest of your critique is spot on. P/C do have tendency toward redundant word usage. But I’ve learned to overlook that in favor of the story they tell and the characters that inhabit their world.

  3. Vari Scudi

    To be certain that a character has behaved in an unrealistic manner is fairly impossible. Each person has a unique personality and operating system. There are about as many possible realistic reactions as there are people. For me, a character devasted and prostrate with grief is ludicrious simply because I would not and do not react that way; however, I know better than to believe that everyone reacts as I do. Too bad our reviewer is not as charitable.

  4. David Roe

    I have no criticism of your article in and of itself as I haven’t read this yet, but you’re clearly just saying these things because you work for the competition. I see Copyright McMillan at the bottom of your website.

  5. J. Leidy

    I am 14 and I have already read all of the Pendergast novels, and they some of the greatest books I have ever read. While I will admit that Cemetary Dance was a rather far-fetched novel, I am afraid that I must criticize you for your review. You wrote a review denouncing both te series and the authors. Perhaps next time you write a review like this you ought to read some of the other books before you write something as biggoted and biased as this.

  6. Shanynn Levin

    First and foremost your critique on Nora Kelly is way off. She has been in various P-C novels and had you read any of their work beforehand, you’d know that this isn’t neccesarily out of character for her to act in such a way. Having no previous knowledge of a well known character or the particular types of stories these gentlemen write makes you automatically lose credibility. Not to mention the fact that you work for an opposing publishing company (Macmillan), you’re judging negatively by default. Clearly your opinion is not only biased but there’s no foundation. You can’t critique writers and characters you know nothing about.

  7. Clare 2e

    Thanks to all the passionate P&C fans who’ve taken the time to comment here! To clarify, this site is publisher-neutral and medium-neutral. It covers books from all kinds of presses, big and tiny, and what press a book comes from never comes into the discussion of the book. Our focus is on the stories.

    Some of us at Crime HQ *ahem, hand raised* are HUGE Pendergast fans. I’ve read them all, will keep doing so, and am ready for the next as soon as I finish the newest. This post’s author’s views aren’t mine, but so what? We posted it, because I thought she gave reasons for why she felt as she does, knowing that hardcore fans like you and me could always respond in the comments.

    There are no default predjudices or backhanded anti-competitive practices at work here, only differences of opinion and taste, which is part of what makes life and crime stories so fascinating.

  8. Ian

    You said that you haven’t read any of the other books…but that is your problem. They are excellent.

  9. Clay

    Preston & Child novels are certainly not immune to criticism, and you raise some good points in your review. I have to admit I do a fair amount of eyerolling while reading their books.

    But I would like to add my opinion to those expressed by fans of their writing, especially the Agent Pendergast series. I find them extremely entertaining, surprisingly literary and comfortingly humanistic. I also think its helpful to see the plots and charaters as somewhat over-the-top and a little tongue-in-cheek, sort of like James Bond or even, I don’t know, Batman. I don’t think Preston & Child take themselves too seriously, and that’s part of the charm of their writing.

  10. bob

    Yep Cemetery was awful and so was the next book in the series but the rest are great.

  11. Josh

    Not the best outing in the series but not a bad one either. I can see how someone could be confused by certain characters’ actions in this tale but if you would have taken the time to read the previous books then none of Cemeteray Dance would have felt out of place. If any would be readers of Preston & Child happen to be reading this comment…do your self a favor and start with Relic and work your way up. You are in for a fantastic time. Also, keep in mind that a book series that has been rolling for this long is bound to have some that are less satisfying as others.

    I’ll just leave this here:

  12. Shannon McKay

    I am a huge fan of the Agent Pendergast Series by P&C. I DO however, admit that this book was probably my least favorite. Once the opening sequence was over, it was a slow read until about halfway through. It just didn’t hold my attention the way the other books have. As for the plot itself being far fetched, that’s certainly not true as some of the books in this series have supernatural aspects to them. These books aren’t strictly under the crime fiction genre. I’d say they’re more thriller with some supernatural undertones blended with crime fiction. It really is hard to lump them in one category. Also, the thing I find most problematic about your review is disclosing that you’ve never read any of the previous books. Yes, it’s true that there are only a few books in this series that are neccesary to read in sequence but it would help if you had some background of these characters. As it’s been mentioned in previous comments, had you known the type of character Nora is, you’d know that her behavior after her husband’s murder isn’t at all peculiar. If anything, it’s exactly what we’d expect from her. This wasn’t her first experince with death or crazy, scary scenarios at all. I just think if you’d had any knowledge of the other books in the series, your perception would be quite different. I WILL admit that in P&C books, I have noticed a lot of redundancy and excessive usage of certain words. That’s the one thing about their writing that I don’t like. All in all it seems to me that the bulk of your review (and disdain) is based on characters that you don’t know anything about. Had you had more knowledge of these characters you’d have more credibility but as of now, you don’t have a leg to stand on.

  13. Jamielee

    This books are so much fun the character pendergast is simple why they work at times some of the books can be a little far fetched but we are talking about story’s about pendergast what would you expect

  14. Klaun

    Are you published? If you hated the book from the opening, why did you bother finish it , and why start reading a series from the middle on? Did you read a book you hated from the start just so you could write a caustic review? Books are journeys and series are epic travels. You don’t start you travels from the middle and you don’t go on a journey that you have decided you hate from the beginning.

  15. Sara Moreau

    Cemetery Dance was the last Pendergast book I read. P&C were never great writers (the word “horror” shows up over 100 times in a relatively short chapter of Still Life With Crows) and Grand Central apparently doesn’t bother to edit them, but they were amazing storytellers. Relic, Reliquary, and earlier entries in the series were absolutely fantastic, but then the plots got absurd, they ran the false ending/red herring thing so far into the ground they touched the earth’s core, characters wouldn’t stay dead; it went downhill fast. They’re apparently still churning them out, but the written reviews on Amazon (never mind the stars, look at the entries) indicate that they should have hung it up long before now.

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