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Onyx reviews: Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

There are two main kinds of zombie novels: the ones where the dead rise en masse to take over the world, killing and eating every human they encounter along the way, and the ones that rely on Caribbean mythology to explain how a dead person has been reanimated. And then, of course, there are the Scooby Doo type stores where someone wants people to believe that a dead person has been reanimated as a cover for their nefarious deeds.

Cemetery Dance can't quite decide which kind of book it wants to be, so it tries to have it both ways. When journalist William Smithback, a major character from previous Preston/Child novels, is murdered in his posh Manhattan apartment while his wife, anthropologist Nora Kelly, is conveniently out buying his favorite desert for their first anniversary dinner, the killer's identity is no mystery. Not only do other residents in the building recognize him as he barges out through the front doors, but his face is captured on the surveillance system. In fact, it seems like he deliberately wants to be recognized.

The case would be open and shut if it weren't for the fact that the supposed killer, Colin Fearing, a resident of the same building as the Smithbacks, was found dead two weeks before he allegedly committed the crime.

This is only one strange facet of the homicide, which Detective Vincent D'Agosta investigates, despite the fact that Smithback was a close friend and his emotions (primarily rage) are clouding his judgment. In most books of this type, a police officer who rails against unfair and arbitrary decisions made by upper manage­ment has the sympathies of the reader. Here, however, it seems like the authors are relying on the character's history to make him sympathetic, whereas most readers probably agree that D'Agosta shouldn't be working this case. He manufactures evidence, ignores procedure and anything that contradicts his theory of the crime, tramples on civil rights, and basically acts like he is a law until himself.

His friend and frequent collaborator, FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast, joins him in the investigation. Pendergast is an odd duck, a thinly disguised simulacrum of Sherlock Holmes, who talks in the stiff, erudite manner of the famous detective, and thinks several steps ahead of everyone else on the planet. Though he is a government agent, he seems to have the freedom to pick and choose cases, even ones where the FBI has no business being involved.

Cemetery Dance trots out one highly improbable event after another. Though there is precedence in Preston/Child novels for quasi-supernatural events, which opens the door to the possibility that a zombie (or zombii, as the pedantic Pendergast insists) is responsible for the reign of terror that leaves several people dead, no matter how many times voodoo (or voudou) is invoked, it's simply hard to swallow. 

Even more incredible, though, is the apparent crux of the matter, a large plot of land on the northern tip of Manhattan where a cult that practices animal sacrifice has successfully sequestered itself from the rest of the city since the Civil War. The two authors ask readers to believe that this cult could simply erect a fence across a main thoroughfare (albeit a remote one), build fences around an area that comprises several square blocks, and generate no more notice than a few complaints about animal sounds and reports of strange goings on, in one of the most highly populated places on the planet. To hand wave away this improbability, the authors imply that any city official over the years who has raised a red flag about the area known as the Ville has suffered for his troubles.

To keep the creepiness threshold high, Pendergast imports an old friend from the Louisiana bayous to explain all of the supernatural rigmarole and to act suitably horrified and terrified by what he sees in the catherdral at the Ville, which is meant to keep readers believing that there really could be zombiis roaming the streets. In an attempt to keep D'Agosta sympathetic to readers, the authors make his adversaries imbeciles without any redeeming characteristics. For example, the police officer tasked with confronting a group of animal rights advocates who plan to march on the Ville is so convinced of his rectitude that he refuses to listen to any warnings, including those from his men on the street. Are there really people who are that inflexible and narrow minded, and if there are, could they possibly rise to his level of responsibility? It doesn't seem fair of the authors to create such a one-dimensional, incredibly wrong-minded man. Flawed characters are far more interesting when readers can identify with them at some level, perhaps even sympathize with them slightly. Readers can only scorn and disdain this particular officer.

By contrast, the man who is ultimately revealed to be the villain is not only nefarious and amoral, he is granted special powers to anticipate every move by the people he is attempting to thwart, as well as seemingly free access to secure places, such as the police morgue. His minions are so blinded by greed that they apparently can't foresee the logical outcome of their roles in the caper. 

Cemetery Dance does contain one clever bit of plotting that ties together seemingly disparate elements late in the book, but the rest of it is contrived, artificial and superficial. These two authors are capable of writing excellent thrillers—Relic was a very good book—but they aren't at the top of their game here.

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