For a long time, I was a pretty devoted fan of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s books, which captured everything I loved about The X-Files in fun, escapist books – supernatural horrors anchored in semi-scientific explanations; criminal investigations that go in unorthodox directions; a mixture of folklore, history, and horror that makes for great adventure reading; and more along those lines. But as the series went on and started moving out of stand-alone adventures and into extended dives into its own mythology (and the family tree of main character Pendergast), I started to lose focus on it, finding the sagas less compelling and missing the mixture of weird science and horror that made books like Relic so compulsively readable.
So when I found out that White Fire represented a return to the standalone adventures that made the series so much fun for me, I decided to skip the rest of the “Helen trilogy” (which I wasn’t all that interested in) and see if Preston & Child could still deliver. The verdict: a bit, but they’ve definitely lost some of the restraint (especially in their main character) that used to give the books their tightness.
White Fire splits its time between Pendergast and his protege Corrie Swanson, now a grad student studying forensic pathology who’s working to create a unique thesis that will make her stand out from the back. Swanson discovers a great story about a series of miners killed in the 19th century by a rampaging bear, and sets out to do a study of the remains. But when she gets there, she finds that there’s a lot more to the story than what history would have you believe, and the town – a retreat for the rich and prosperous – doesn’t want the reality to be put on show for the public. Oh, and there’s the matter of an arsonist who’s burning down some of the nicest houses in the area – with their inhabitants still inside.
Preston and Child juggle threads expertly, unfolding White Fire in lots of different directions but keeping the book moving. There’s the connection to Arthur Conan Doyle and a lost Sherlock Holmes story; there’s the local police chief and his desperate attempts to keep panic under control; there’s the descendant of one of the original victims, who comes to town to see what’s happened with the remains; and, of course, there’s Swanson’s pursuit of the truth, which is rapidly revealing itself to be far darker and more disturbing than you’d expect.
All of this is a lot of fun, but the book ultimately sags under the weight of doing too much, and that goes doubly when it comes to Pendergast, whose quirkiness and idiosyncrasies have only increased over time to the point where he’s getting a bit insufferable, even for fans, and his deductions and abilities strain credulity. (This is maybe most visible in a scene in which Pendergast uses his memory palace to reconstruct a historical event based off of notes he’s found, but then follows the characters to a second event that he has no evidence of whatsoever, and watches as it all unfolds – yes, in essence, he time travels using the power of his mind, which…sure.) The reveal of the arsonist, too, is over-the-top to a disappointing degree, and while there’s an in-book explanation for the excess, it doesn’t help the usual sense of “how did this person hide their delusion so well?”
I enjoyed White Fire a lot as I read it; Preston and Child know how to tease out a plot and keep you reading, and the slow reveals of exactly what’s going on are a lot of fun. But the series is starting to go the way of its hero – excessively quirky, less grounded and more bizarre, and just a bit strained. I had fun with it, and I’m not entirely done with the books, but I’d be lying if I didn’t come away from this a little let down at how much it fizzled for me by the end.