On the cover of Brimstone, a statue of the angel of death glows green while a red flame burns in front of it.

According to Amazon, there are currently 21 Pendergast books, written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (P&C). I’m actually looking at the fifth, Brimstone, since I have it on good authority that it stands alone. In fact, it’s also the first book in the Diogenes trilogy.

I know nothing about the Pendergast books, though I accidentally scanned enough of the sales blurb to know the plot kicks off with a death. But that hardly makes the book unique. Let’s see what’s in here!

At Least Try With Your Opening

Time for the first sentence.

Agnes Torres parked her white Ford Escort in the little parking area outside the hedge and stepped into the cool dawn air.

Seriously? This must be the most boring opening sentence I’ve seen in a critique post. I suppose it could still be worse; it’s not disorienting or outright mangled. But it doesn’t display even a small effort to entertain readers.

Shoot, I have to decide on a lowest possible score for my first-sentence star rating system. Should zero stars be allowed or just one through five? Let’s say zero technically exists but is a truly exceptional circumstance. Unless the sentence is an incomprehensible disaster, one is the lowest score. Brimstone gets a half point simply because it’s not confusing, so it’s got one and a half stars out of five.

So Agnes parks her car. Weirdly, P&C specify that it’s a white Ford Escort. I’ve stated many times that specific terms are better, but that’s oddly specific and even technical. Just imagine:


Agnes Torres reverse parked her white Ford Escort in the last space of the small northwest parking area 3 feet from the boxwood hedge and stepped out the driver’s door into 40-degree-Celsius air 20 minutes past sunrise.

I guess “white Ford Escort” must be a clue that’s important later. This might also explain why the story opens with her getting out of her car and not with something interesting.

Let’s look at the rest of the opening paragraph.

The hedges were twelve feet high and as impenetrable as a brick wall; only the shingled peak of the big house could be seen from the street. But she could hear the surf thundering and smell the salt air of the invisible ocean beyond.

This at least makes the house feel a little mysterious while it gives us clues. I normally recommend against exact measurements such as “twelve feet high,” but for a mystery like this, the exact numbers might matter. However, it does mean that readers are being invited to invest their time in puzzling out the mystery, so that effort had better pay off.

The “but” on the last sentence really threw me when I first read this. Agnes hearing and smelling the ocean didn’t seem to contradict the shingled peak of the big house that’s seen from the street. Plus, an ocean is a little big to be hidden by one house.

I wish the ocean was actually invisible. Now that would be a story.

Agnes carefully locked the car—it paid to be careful, even in this neighborhood—and, fumbling with the massive set of keys, found the right one and stuck it into the lock.

Wait – what? She locks her car and then sticks a key back in the lock again? Why?

The heavy sheet-metal gate swung inward, exposing a broad expanse of green lawn that swept three hundred yards down to the beach, flanked by two dunes.

There’s a gate. So I guess that’s the lock she stuck her key into? But there’s no mention of this gate when she does that. I guess readers are supposed to psychically intuit what this lock is about.

Also, is this gate 12 feet tall and blocking all sight of the house except for the shingled peak? If it’s not, the previous description doesn’t make sense, since Agnes could see the house past the gate. But if it is, that’s definitely something P&C should have mentioned along with the hedge, since that’s a lot to expect readers to just assume about a gate.

The description of the lawn isn’t bad, though the house is conspicuously absent from the picture.

A red light on a keypad just inside the gate began blinking, and she entered the code with nervous fingers. She had thirty seconds before the sirens went off. Once, she had dropped her keys and couldn’t punch in the code in time, and the thing had awakened practically the whole town and brought three police cars. Mr. Jeremy had been so angry she thought he would breathe fire. It had been awful.

Oh, cool – Mr. Jeremy breathes fire!

Wait. He doesn’t, does he? He’s just an asshole boss or client.

At this point, I had to double-check that the book is speculative fiction. This is exactly the type of thing nonspeculative writers do. They use fantastical things as metaphors in an attempt to make mundane things more interesting. At Amazon, Brimstone is listed as occult mystery, so I guess it does have a few fantastical things, as a treat.

Also, there’s a big alarm that goes off after 30 seconds. Unless the code is super long, 30 seconds should actually be plenty of time to put it in. Even so, any alarm is going to have false positives, so the extreme response seems a bit unrealistic. Would the police really want to send three whole cars just because some rich guy’s alarm went off?

Watch Those Stereotypes

Agnes punched the last button and the light turned green. She breathed a sigh of relief, locked the gate, and paused to cross herself. Then she drew out her rosary, held the first bead reverently between her fingers. Fully armed now, she turned and began waddling across the lawn on short, thick legs, walking slowly to allow herself time to intone the Our Fathers, the Hail Marys, and the Glory Bes in quiet Spanish. She always said a decade on her rosary when entering the Grove Estate.

This is when I learned Agnes is not the main character. Yeah, I know the series is named after the main character … now.

The use of “waddling” is what gives it away. It’s hard to imagine anyone describing the movement of their main character that way. If Agnes was the main character, she’d probably be thin and hot.

The term is also pretty darn disrespectful, to the point of being problematic. It’s associated with the slow movements of a duck on land. That makes it feel dehumanizing. Then, the text implies she “waddles” because she has short and thick legs. So do little people “waddle” then? How about fat people? Not to mention this character has a Hispanic name. I do not like this waddle, no I do not.

Agnes is also so afraid of the house that she prays and crosses herself. How about you just tell us about the creepy house, P&C? That’s all you’ve got going for you right now, and you’ve barely mentioned it.

The vast gray house loomed in front of her, a single eyebrow window in the roof peak frowning like the eye of a Cyclops, yellow against the steel gray of the house and sky. Seagulls circled above, crying restlessly.

I may have to take that back.

I like the comparison to a cyclops (especially since the simile doesn’t taunt me by suggesting there’s an actual cyclops), but I don’t remember any cyclops having an eyebrow that is also an eye that frowns. This house is quite an exercise in creative facial anatomy.

To be fair, “eyebrow window” is a real term for a curving roof window that does resemble an eye. However, when I did a casual poll on the Mythcreants Discord server, not a single person knew what it meant. Unless a mystery audience has a wildly different vocabulary, it would have been better to describe the window without the term. Plus, adding the frown is unnecessary and confusing. Don’t mix your metaphors, P&C.*

Agnes was surprised. She never remembered that light on before. What was Mr. Jeremy doing in the attic at seven o’clock in the morning? Normally he didn’t get out of bed until noon.

Finishing her prayers, she replaced the rosary and crossed herself again: a swift, automatic gesture, made with a rough hand that had seen decades of domestic work. She hoped Mr. Jeremy wasn’t still awake. She liked to work in an empty house, and when he was up, everything was so unpleasant: the cigarette ashes he dropped just behind her mop, the dishes he heaped in the sink just after she had washed, the comments and the endless swearing to himself, into the phone or at the newspaper, always followed by a harsh laugh. His voice was like a rusty knife—it cut and slashed the air.

Agnes is a maid. Why didn’t I see that coming? Can’t have Hispanic women in positions of authority; that just wouldn’t do. And she’s a maid who apparently takes out her rosary, prays, and crosses herself every single day when she enters her workplace. If a window light is on, she does it again. Wouldn’t her terror wear off after 100 days of coming in and doing the dishes? This looks very much like the “superstitious poor people” stereotype, just to add a little classism to the mix.

For a moment, I considered asking you to place a bet on whether Agnes will be the person who dies or if it will be Mr. Jeremy, but that’s silly. She’s a rich guy’s maid; of course she’s going to discover he’s dead.

Is there a mystery series about a maid who, after repeatedly discovering bodies, adds sleuthing to her list of services? It’s more expensive than a regular house clean, but less expensive than cleaning up after the murder. She encourages clients to put down a deposit ahead so their grieving next of kin won’t have to deal with the bill. If the next of kin turns out to be the murderer, she bills them anyway.

That was only half of this huge paragraph. Let’s look at the rest.

He was thin and mean and stank of cigarettes and drank brandy at lunch and entertained sodomites at all hours of the day and night. Once he had tried to speak Spanish with her but she had quickly put an end to that. Nobody spoke Spanish to her except family and friends, and Agnes Torres spoke English perfectly well enough. On the other hand, Agnes had worked for many people in her life, and Mr. Jeremy was very correct with her employment. He paid her well, always on time, he never asked her to stay late, never changed her schedule, and never accused her of stealing. Once, early on, he had blasphemed against the Lord in her presence, and she had spoken to him about it, and he had apologized quite civilly and had never done it again.

Got your bigotry bingo card ready? Good, you can mark off the anti-queer space. Anyone have a bingo yet?

No doubt P&C thought using “sodomite” was fine because it’s supposed to be Agnes’s opinion, not theirs. But aside from the issue with making the Hispanic woman you’ve just introduced a bigot, the paragraph strongly implies Mr. Jeremy is gay, and he’s about to be very dead. This is like letting a character use the N-word without pushback right before you kill off a Black character. It’s messed up.

Also, P&C say that Mr. Jeremy is “mean,” but this paragraph shows us the opposite. Despite getting mad when she set off the alarm, he apparently treats Agnes quite well. When she’s offended by his cursing, he even apologizes and adjusts his behavior. While giving Agnes a comfortable working environment is definitely a good thing, I don’t think he’s obligated to do that. The religion he’s blaspheming against is both pervasive and a tool for oppressing him.

As for Agnes’s response to Mr. Jeremy using Spanish, I don’t know enough to judge that. On one hand, I could see how using Spanish unsolicited could come with a condescending assumption about Agnes’s English skills. On the other hand, it might also imply that English should be the default language. I’d love to hear from someone more knowledgeable in the comments.

Skip Past the Boring Parts

She came up the curving flagstone path to the back door, inserted a second key, and once again fumbled nervously with the keypad, turning off the internal alarm.

Ugh, who cares? We’ve already done this once. There has got to be a way to give clues that doesn’t bog down the narration with tons of useless detail. If it really matters, cover it when it matters.

The house was gloomy and gray, the mullioned windows in front looking out on a long seaweed-strewn beach to an angry ocean. The sound of the surf was muffled here and the house was hot. Unusually hot.

The house was gloomy and gray? That’s the best description you’ve got, P&C?

I almost don’t want to call this description, because description is about showing. What’s gloomy about the house? It’s definitely not the windows looking out on the ocean, even if you declare the ocean is “angry.” For that matter, what’s gray? Have the walls been painted gray? Is the furniture gray? And thank you for telling me outdoor sounds are muffled inside. I never would have guessed that.

I’m not even sure all the belabored technical details in this book are clues anymore. Maybe P&C are just that bad at description.

At least we have some foreshadowing for the dead body. It’s unusually hot. Let’s see that crispy-fried Mr. Jeremy.

She sniffed. There was a strange smell in the air, like a greasy roast left too long in the oven. She waddled into the kitchen but it was empty. The dishes were heaped up, and the place was a mess as usual, stale food everywhere, and yet the smell wasn’t coming from here.

We take a needless detour into the kitchen. Sure, it’s realistic that Agnes would check the kitchen first, but P&C could just summarize it. And this is only half of the kitchen paragraph. I skipped the rest, because who cares?

Also, Agnes, your walk is perfect just the way it is. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a waddle.

She went into the living room and sniffed the air again. Something was definitely cooking somewhere. And there was another smell on top of it, as if somebody had been playing with matches.

P&C, you have one job during this chapter. Show us the body… or die.*

It’s obvious she’ll discover a body, so this isn’t suspenseful. And we don’t need sentence after sentence describing the smell of the body with slightly different nuances. If you really need to specify the subtleties of this aroma, you can do it at one time rather than taking a tour of the whole house.

Agnes Torres felt a vague sense of alarm. Everything was more or less as she had left it when she went away yesterday, at two in the afternoon, except that the ashtrays were overflowing with butts and the usual empty wine bottles stood on the sideboard, dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and someone had dropped soft cheese on the rug and stepped in it.

Yes, Agnes, something is wrong. Thank you for joining us; let’s find a body.

Also, that excerpt is only two sentences. To be fair, much of it forms a list, making it fairly easy to parse despite the length. However, look at the format: “Everything was X, except that Y and Z, A, and B.” The overflowing ashtrays (Y) and the wine bottles (Z) are joined with an “and” instead of a comma. If they felt like two parts of a single item in the list, that would make sense. But the ashtrays and wine bottles are in two different locations.

She raised her plump face and sniffed again. The smell came from above.

You’re getting warmer, Agnes.

Of course, readers can guess the body is in the attic because of the lit eyebrow window. Given that, if P&C weren’t willing to cut this belabored search, they should have left out the Picasso cyclops. If we couldn’t guess where the body was, it might actually be interesting when Agnes smells cooking, checks the kitchen, and doesn’t find anything. Once readers know the answer to a mystery, watching a character solve it becomes much less fun.

Similarly, we know a body will appear. That creates impatience to see it instead of mounting tension over what could go wrong. It also makes it feel unlikely that Agnes herself could be in danger – assuming we still care after she uses an anti-gay slur.

I might guess tension is intentionally low because this is a cozy mystery, but Amazon lists it under occult suspense and occult horror.

In the next long paragraph, Agnes climbs the stairs and unlocks the door to the attic. Then, P&C have mundane description of how the attic is a big space with lots of unused children’s bedrooms. Agnes sees light under the door of the bedroom and heads there, but not before she – can you guess? – crosses herself and holds her rosary again. I guess it makes more sense to do it now than every time she enters her workplace.

Then, it’s very important to describe the smell a third time.

She grasped the doorknob and was surprised to find it slightly warm to the touch. Was there a fire? Had somebody fallen asleep, cigarette in hand? There was definitely a faint smell of smoke, but it wasn’t just smoke somehow: it was something stronger. Something foul.

“Something foul” is such a cop-out. What does it smell like? Sulfur? Burnt hair? A roadkill skunk being slow roasted over a fire? Tell me!

The doorknob being warm is a nice detail though.

Next, it finally dawns on Agnes that she might find a body.

She tried the doorknob, found it locked. It reminded her of the time, when she was a little girl at the convent school, when crazy old Sister Ana had died and they had to force open her door.

Somebody on the other side might need her assistance; might be sick or incapacitated. Once again she fumbled with the keys. She had no idea which one went to the door, so it wasn’t until perhaps the tenth try that the key turned. Holding her breath, she opened the door, but it moved only an inch before stopping, blocked by something. She pushed, pushed harder, heard a crash on the other side.

Santa María, it was going to wake up Mr. Jeremy. She waited, but there was no sound of his tread, no slamming bathroom door or flushing toilet, none of the sounds that signaled his irascible rising.

Again, this is perfectly realistic. The issue is that since readers already know she’ll find a body, three whole paragraphs of her getting on the same page feels belabored.

Even Subverted Bigotry Is Rarely Fun

Next, we finally get details that add something new to the mystery!

She pushed at the door and was able to get her head inside, holding her breath against the smell. A thin screen of haze drifted in the room, and it was as hot as an oven. The room had been shut up for years—Mr. Jeremy despised children—and dirty spiderwebs hung from the peeling beadboard walls. The crash had been caused by the toppling of an old armoire that had been pushed up against the door. In fact, all the furniture in the room seemed to have been piled against the door, except for the bed. The bed, she could see, was on the far side of the room. Mr. Jeremy lay on it, fully clothed.

All the furniture was piled against the door, which tells us that Mr. Jeremy was probably trying to keep something out. While Agnes has passed through four locked doors (gate, back door, attic door, bedroom door), those could have been locked for privacy.

There also doesn’t seem to be any sign of a heat source. Or at least, I’m assuming not. P&C should tell us here if there was, but based on what we’ve read so far, I don’t trust them to do that.

And finally, Mr. Jeremy is just lying on the bed in his clothes.

If you don’t want to read description of a dead body, skip the next excerpt.

“Mr. Jeremy?”

But Agnes Torres knew there would be no answer. Mr. Jeremy wasn’t sleeping, not with his charred eyes burned permanently open, the ashy cone of his mouth frozen in a scream and his blackened tongue—swelled to the size of a chorizo sausage—sticking straight up from it like a flagpole. A sleeping man wouldn’t be lying with his elbows raised above the bed, fists clenched so hard that blood had leaked between the fingers. A sleeping man wouldn’t have his torso scorched and caved in upon itself like a burned log. She had seen many dead people during her childhood in Colombia, and Mr. Jeremy looked deader than any of them. He was as dead as they come.

Judging by his appearance, Mr. Jeremy is DEAD dead. Very, obviously dead. Deader than any other dead body from the mountain of bodies Agnes has seen. So why did Agnes call out to him then? Just checking if he’s okay?

If she was still working her way past the furniture and hadn’t caught sight of him yet, it would make more sense. But if she can see he’s lying on the bed fully clothed, she would also see all the gross stuff P&C just made a huge deal about. Agnes calls out only because P&C want readers to imagine that Mr. Jeremy might be sleeping. Even though we all know he isn’t.

When writers deliberately mislead readers to make their prose feel more engaging, it comes off as cheap and contrived. It isn’t necessary to do that if you just make the story itself interesting.

We also know now that Agnes is a Latina from Colombia. I’m not qualified to judge on her seeing dead bodies there. It’s easy to stereotype other countries as being filled to the brim with violence, but since she’s no longer living in Colombia, being a refugee is more likely.

After seeing the body, naturally she prays, crosses herself, and holds her rosary again.

We’re almost at the end of the chapter.

There was a scorched mark on the floor, right at the foot of the bed: a mark which Agnes recognized.

In that moment, she understood exactly what had happened to Mr. Jeremy Grove.

How dramatic! P&C even pull out of Agnes’s head to delay telling us what this mark is. Okay, P&C, but this had better be good.

A muffled cry escaped her throat and she suddenly had the energy to back out of the room and shut the door. She fumbled with the keys and relocked it, all the while murmuring Creo en Dios, Padre todopoderoso, creador del cielo y de la tierra. She crossed herself again and again and again, clutching the rosary and holding it up to her chest as she backed down the hall, step by step, sobs mingling with her mumbled prayers.

The cloven hoofprint burned into the floor told her everything she needed to know.

The devil had finally come for Jeremy Grove.

The hoofprint in itself is pretty neat, but that means this mystery is about whether the devil came to claim a gay guy. What fun? While I imagine the devil will not be the guilty party – it would be a bit difficult to arrest him – this still won’t make the book an enjoyable, escapist read for queer people.

Not to mention, P&C introduced a Colombian character just to be a superstitious stereotype who crosses herself over and over and over again. After all, P&C need an appropriately dramatic response to this ShockingTM death. That’s why the main character doesn’t discover the body.

Who is the main character, anyway? Let’s see if we can find them in chapter two. I doubt it will be difficult. After an opening with a maid who discovers the body of her rich and eccentric employer, I am not expecting something unusual.

Good Metaphors Aren’t Distracting

Below is the first paragraph of chapter two.

The sergeant paused from stretching the yellow police tape to take in the scene with a jaundiced eye. It was a mess that was about to become a fucking mess. The barricades had been set up too late, and rubberneckers had overrun the beach and dunes, ruining any clues the sand might have held. Then the barricades had been set up in the wrong places and had to be moved, trapping a matched set of his-and-hers Range Rovers, and the two people were now out of their cars, yelling about important appointments (hairdresser, tennis) and brandishing their cell phones, threatening to call their lawyers.

Nope, not the main character. For one thing, they’re only referred to as “the sergeant.” I doubt P&C would give their main character jaundice, and the sergeant is too preoccupied with the mundane work of setting up the crime scene. This is probably the main character’s police contact.

I do find the details in this paragraph interesting, since I don’t know anything about handling crime scenes. But why is that last sentence so long? Just put a period after “Range Rovers”; it barely changes the passage while still making it more readable.

In the next paragraph, P&C reveal that Mr. Jeremy is the town’s “most notorious resident.” Is it because the town is populated by anti-queer bigots like Agnes? He’s gay and really courteous to the religious bigot who works for him, so what else am I supposed to assume? I doubt drinking, smoking, and swearing would make him notorious.

He heard Lieutenant Braskie’s voice. “Sergeant, you haven’t done these hedges! Didn’t I tell you I wanted the whole crime scene taped?”

Even if I didn’t know the main character’s last name, this is obviously not them. Protagonists are not typically annoying bosses.

P&C give us a couple more paragraphs describing the crowd around the general crime scene. Backup cars, the homicide squad, and the “SOC boys” arrive. I assume “SOC” stands for “scene of crime” – forensics, basically. So… the forensics team is entirely dudes? I guess we can mark off “sexism” on our bingo cards.

[The sergeant] glanced back at the house and saw the SOC boys crawling across the lawn on hands and knees, the lieutenant striding alongside. The guy didn’t have a clue. He felt another pang. Here he was, pulling crowd control, his training and talent wasted while the real police work went on somewhere else.

No use thinking about that now.

The sergeant gets some sympathy! I still don’t think he’s the main character. That’s a good thing too. While I feel for this guy a little, we don’t need more cop protagonists.

He saw a man running low through the dunes, zigzagging this way and that, and he took off after him, cutting him off at the edge of the lawn. It was a photographer. By the time the sergeant reached him, he’d already dropped to his knee and was shooting with a telephoto as long as an elephant’s dick toward one of the homicide detectives from East Hampton, who was interviewing a maid on the veranda.

Yes, P&C really compared a camera lens to an elephant’s dong. I did not insert that as a joke, I swear.

Is this book for six-year-olds?

That’s definitely the metaphor to use if you want to distract readers from the story you’re telling. Why bother with a mystery when you can tell dick jokes? The best part is that P&C assume their readers know how long an elephant’s dick is.

Given that the camera makes a 100-times-bigger impression than the photographer, I do not think the photographer is the main character. The camera might be, though. It does have a special ability: swapping out appendages to improve its seduction technique. It’s clearly working on the photographer, who has dropped to his knees.

Okay, okay, I’m moving on now, as hard as that is. As hard as that camera lens, amirite?

Anyway, let’s look at the next individual mentioned.

The sergeant took a detour around the lawn and cut behind a small duck pond and fountain, keeping out of the way of the SOC team. As he came around some hedges he saw a man in the distance, standing by the duck pond, throwing pieces of bread to the ducks. He was dressed in the gaudiest day-tripper style imaginable, complete with Hawaiian shirt, Oakley Eye Jacket shades, and giant baggy shorts.

I think we found our main character! A supposedly innocuous guy standing by the crime scene who looks like a complete dork and is doing something silly like feeding the ducks. This is just how detectives act; they are 75% eccentricities by volume. The remaining 25% is candy.

Even though summer had ended over a month ago, it looked like this was the man’s first day in the sun after a long, cold winter. Maybe a dozen winters. While the sergeant had some sympathy for a photographer or reporter trying to do his job, he had absolutely no tolerance for tourists. They were the scum of the earth.

Oh yeah, this is definitely the main character, Pendergast. The sergeant is even going to be mean to him for no reason, just so that Pendergast can show him up.

“What do you think you’re doing? Don’t you know this is a crime scene?”

“Yes, Officer, and I do apologize-“

“Get the hell out.”

“But, Sergeant, it’s important the ducks be fed. They’re hungry. I imagine that someone feeds them every morning, but this morning, as you know-” He smiled and shrugged.

The sergeant could hardly believe it. A guy gets murdered, and this idiot is worried about ducks?

When detectives take on disguises, it’s vitally important that they don’t blend in. Why be good at your job when you can mess with a sergeant doing his job?

This kind of thing is also typical for nonspeculative stories. They’ve been deprived of robots and unicorns, so they add novelty by making people act really wacky. But this book is, in fact, speculative. I quadruple-checked. My novelty-deprived brain doesn’t believe me, so I’m taking it on faith that the entire internet is not lying.*

Next, the sergeant asks for an ID, and Pendergast does a bunch of suspicious waffling and excuses. Because he feels like it, I guess? If it wasn’t so obvious he’s the detective, he could be a suspect, which could make this interaction interesting. But in that case, the silly duck routine would only lower tension.

Also, Pendergast, why not give us a waddle? Agnes had to do it, and she wasn’t engaged in any duck-related activities.

The sergeant looked at the guy. Normally he would just chase him back behind the barriers. But there was something about him that didn’t quite wash. For one thing, the clothes he was wearing were so new they still smelled of a menswear shop. For another thing, they were such a hideous mixture of colors and patterns that it looked like he’d plucked them randomly from a rack in the village boutique. This was more than just bad taste—this was a disguise.

This is a nice surprise! P&C have charitably given just a little of Pendergast’s candy to the sergeant by allowing the sergeant to realize this a disguise. The big question is whether they later reveal that Pendergast allowed the sergeant to figure it out on purpose as a test. He’s gotta make sure his sidekicks are worthy.

Alright, let’s close this thing with the reveal.

“Let’s try again. First name?”


“Spell it.”

The man spelled it.



The pencil in the sergeant’s hand began writing this down, too. Then it paused. Slowly the sergeant looked up. The Oakleys had come off, and he found himself staring into that face he knew so well, with the blond-white hair, gray eyes, finely chiseled features, skin as pale and translucent as Carrara marble.

You have got to be kidding me.

Not only does the sergeant know Pendergast’s face “so well,” but Pendergast apparently has white-blond hair and pale translucent skin – notable features that P&C have failed to mention along with all the clothing details. Yet somehow, the sergeant can’t recognize Pendergast with sunglasses on. Sunglasses that do not cover up his hair, skin, or “finely chiseled features.”

It’s because Pendergast is a master of disguise, you see. He’s not like you or me; sunglasses completely transform all of his features somehow.

No, this is not a magical glamour. I think?

A Pile of Mystery Clichés

I’m not even a mystery aficionado, and yet everything in this intro feels so clichéd that it lacks suspense. When a story is too predictable, uncertainty can be lost, and tension requires uncertainty.

  • I knew that Agnes wasn’t in danger, because maids are always used to discover bodies or be witnesses.
  • I knew what Agnes would find when she entered the house: a body. When she enters the hot house and smells cooking, it was obviously the body that was cooked.
  • I knew that the body would be up in the attic, where a creepy window was. That makes the investigation of the ground floor feel like a waste of time.

The general lack of novelty makes this worse, though as a speculative fiction professional, my standards may be high here. Even so, P&C had the opportunity to describe the house in a way that built atmosphere and made it feel remarkable. That failed because their description of the house is so weak.

What’s left is the the devil-and-brimstone theming of the death. Setting aside the problematic aspect of doing this with a gay murder victim, this could be an interesting puzzle. There are four locks in place and a pile of furniture against the door, yet somehow Mr. Jeremy was still torn apart in a blaze of heat. Unfortunately, this is where fantastical elements work against the story. The answer to this puzzle is almost certainly “a wizard did it.”

While the devil could be an intimidating antagonist, this intro gives readers no reason to believe more deaths are on the way. Without that, even a creepy death doesn’t create tension. If readers are already familiar with Pendergast, they might be concerned about him facing off with the devil. However, not only does this intro lack a sense of looming threat after Mr. Jeremy’s death, but it’s also slow to give us a main character that could be threatened.

Speaking of Pendergast…

Benoit Blanc in Glass Onion, a white man with blond hair wearing a striped beach outfit and sunglasses. His hands are in his shirt pockets, making him look like a dork.

This is famous detective Benoit Blanc from Glass Onion, acting innocent to get people to lower their guards. Like Pendergast, he has a Southern accent. However, Blanc is gay, which is a big improvement over killing off a gay guy in the first chapter.

Of course, I’m not saying Pendergast is a copy of Blanc; that’s impossible, since Pendergast came first. I’m saying both came from the same classic detective stock, which includes Poirot and, before him, Sherlock. His hapless-tourist routine is obvious to anyone familiar with classic detectives.

Also, are you having trouble recognizing actor Daniel Craig because he’s wearing sunglasses in that image? Now imagine he had white-blond hair and translucent skin.

P&C put the most energy into embellishing quirky and somewhat-cartoonish stock characters. That’s what makes this feel more like a cozy than the suspenseful novel it’s supposed to be. Perhaps going forward, the book diverges into tenser territory. But based on this intro, I’m struggling to understand why fans find it so riveting.

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