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Onyx reviews: The Providence Rider by Robert McCammon

The Providence Rider is Robert McCammon's fourth novel to feature problem-solver Matthew Corbett, an early eighteenth century Sherlock Holmes who works in New York City. His most recent adventure set him against the lunatic Mr. Slaughter and once again put him at odds with his nemesis Professor Fell, the criminal mastermind who plays the part of Moriarty.

That's not to say that these books are Arthur Conan Doyle clones. Matthew is smart, but he's not effete and has few of Holmes's foibles. He's young, agile and occasionally naive. He's also a marked man: Professor Fell has promised to kill him, though exactly when this execution is to take place isn't specified. So, when Matthew finds out that Fell wants to hire him to avail himself of his problem-solving skills, it comes as something of a surprise. Matthew has kept his knowledge of Professor Fell's machinations to himself, not even confiding in his employer or his partner, both of whom might have been able to do something about it. He thinks he's protecting them, but in fact he's allowing Fell to continue to operate without restraint. 

It takes McCammon a while to get to the point of the story, though. Nearly a third of the novel is set-up. The opening several pages are written from the perspective of several aquatic creatures (a crab, a fish, an octopus) who take their respective places in the food chain. It's clever but ultimately pointless and somewhat self indulgent. Someone is setting off bombs in New York and leaving Matthew's name painted nearby. No one believes Matthew is stupid enough to sign his name to these terrorist acts, but people become wary of him all the same. It turns out this ill-thought-out ploy is an attempt to coerce Matthew into meeting with two of Fell's associates, who are pretending to be Doctor Mallory and his wife. When Matthew refuses to go along, Fell sends an East Indian giant with diamonds in his teeth to bring Matthew by force. One wonders why he didn't simply do that in the first place.

Matthew ends up on a boat headed for Pendulum Island in the Bermudas. He's not alone, though. Berry Grigsby, who has designs on Matthew, sticks her nose into his business yet again, and is taken along for a ride, along with Zed, the maimed African with whom only she can communicate. En route, the false Mallorys explain to Matthew what the Professor wants. He is to pretend to be Nathan Spade, one of Fell's assassins, who is joining an annual meeting of the Professor's associates on the island he owns. Fell wants him to ferret out a traitor in the group.

Once he gets to Pendulum Island, so named because it occasionally sways due to seismic activity, Matthew embraces his role as Nathan Spade, adopting a different tone and a more lethal demeanor. However, he is bedeviled by a pair of annoying Irish brothers who finish each other's sentences and seem determined to finish Matthew off, too. They carry their pranks to lethal extremes, but it's hard to imagine them risking the wrath of their host by killing one of his valued guests. The most harrowing things that befall Matthew on Pendulum Island are the results of their capricious pranks, scenes that seem to be constructed purely to manipulate readers.

McCammon also relies on the weakest of plot choices: the coincidence. That Matthew encounters the sister of someone from his previous adventures is so unlikely as to strain all credibility, and this chance meeting doesn't even have a satisfying payoff.

Finally, there is the question of Fell's motives for bringing Matthew to his inner sanctum. The reason supplied—that he needs  Matthew for his problem solving skills—is weak. Fell has all the tools at his disposal to perform the same investigation Matthew does in a couple of days, plus Fell would have had several extra weeks if he'd started when Matthew was gang-mobbed into action: the amount of time it took for the ship to get from New York to the Bermudas. Besides, Fell demonstrates that he's perfectly willing to kill any of his henchmen purely as a warning to the others. Though Matthew gets the answer to Fell's question, he doesn't do so through any deductive process and the outcome of this particular plotline serves little purpose.

Bringing a criminal mastermind on stage is always a risky move. Professor Fell was much more ominous when he was simply a name with a lethal reputation who may or may not actually exist. Reduced to humanity, with human strengths and weaknesses, he loses some of his mystique. Is the "origin story" he tells Matthew about his rise from relative anonymity to criminal greatness true? Ultimately it doesn't much matter. 

Maybe Fell has bigger plans. Maybe he knew what Matthew would do once invited to the criminal mastermind's inner lair. If that's the case, readers will have to wait for the next installment to see if there is some payoff to these plot threads. Otherwise, it seems like McCammon could have used a stronger editorial hand with this novel—one that would have questioned the motivations behind certain events. For example, why would the Thacker brothers try to kill "Nathan Spade" the moment he stepped foot on shore, and why would Fell allow such outrageous behavior? And why would Fell go to such great lengths to try to browbeat Matthew into helping when he was willing to simply kidnap him? And so on.

The book reads a bit like a James Bond thriller, with a criminal mastermind, alter egos, double agents, beautiful (and dangerous) women, a damsel in distress, explosions, nautical adventures, constant threats to Matthew's well being, killers of both sexes lurking behind every door, and gigantic assassins locked in life-and-death struggles. That's all well and good, but it would have been nice if a little more internal logic governed everyone's actions.

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