Preston & Child’s ‘Verses for the Dead’ explores southern Florida and a puzzling string of deaths (Book review)

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ouglas Preston and Lincoln Child give Agent Pendergast a fresh start of sorts in his 18th novel, “Verses for the Dead” (December, hardcover). Series like the Constance trilogy and the Helen trilogy are conclusions to long-simmering threads, and the standalone before this one, “City of Endless Night,” is a nostalgic team-up for Pendergast and D’Agosta. But in “Verses for the Dead,” Pendergast gets a new FBI partner, Coldmoon, and he deals with office politics regarding his future with the bureau. Although the authors occasionally reference Pendergast’s death-like pallor, it’s clear he’s not interested in retirement. And his exploits in the action-packed final chapters show he hasn’t lost much vigor.

P&C books are often like travelogues, and “Verses” wonderfully captures the chaos of tourist-filled, nightmare-traffic Miami – where the modern murders take place – but contrasts it with some fascinating side trips. The swamps of the Everglades won’t totally be new to readers, as Pendergast trudged through Louisiana swamps at least once before, but there’s some harrowing writing about hungry alligators here that presages the summer movie “Crawl.”

Although the authors occasionally reference Pendergast’s death-like pallor, it’s clear he’s not interested in retirement.

“Verses” is a smooth introduction to new characters, because their POVs largely are reactions to Pendergast, so we feel a kinship with them. Agent Coldmoon is baffled by Pendergast’s tactics and theories, but gradually becomes impressed.

Roger Smithback, brother of the late Bill Smithback, joins the dramatis personae as a Miami Herald reporter. This is somewhat of a cheat, as the authors can sort of revisit a dead character they still like to write about. Still, Roger is different from Bill in enough ways that I’ll go with it. While Smithback’s investigative adventures are solid, the authors’ newsroom portrayals are anachronistic. Smithback receives boxes of letters from people claiming to be the serial killer, Brokenhearts. Even nutjobs would use email nowadays.

Fauchet, a Miami medical examiner, is another nice addition, and she has a parallel with Pendergast: Both are extremely competent but are being ridden by their bosses. She also catches the investigative bug from Pendergast.

The mystery of “Verses” is an understandable case to get bitten by. It ranks toward the top of the list of P&C mysteries where readers are given a fair chance to solve elements of it before the agents do. A man calling himself Brokenhearts is killing women, removing their hearts, and leaving them on gravestones of other women who committed suicide a decade prior. It’s fun to figure out the connections or patterns between the people, places and times of these cases.

That said, there’s also a twist I didn’t see coming. I have mixed feelings about it, and I think some readers may love it and some may hate it. It explains a lot of what has been going on, but also simplifies it. Brokenhearts, when revealed, reminds me somewhat of a villain from one previous book. Although it’s true that life is a mystery that won’t be completely solved, some elements of “Verses” strike me as too unfinished. I think we’ll learn more about Coldmoon and Fauchet later, but some things about this book’s villain might remain a mystery.

Still, since the iffy aspects of “Verses” come toward the end, its value as a page-turner isn’t diminished, and I think it’ll also stand as a subtly important character piece. This is a standalone – not part of wider threads with Constance (who is barely mentioned) or other characters. Yet it re-establishes and re-humanizes Pendergast – as eccentric as he may be – as someone who has to deal with office politics, logistics and other people’s quirks in order to solve a case.