The Cabinet of Curiosities

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s seventh collaboration brings together characters from their previous books, including Nora Kelly and Bill Smithback from Thunderhead (1999), and FBI Special Agent Pendergast, who first appeared in Relic (1995). When a New York City construction crew unearths a tunnel filled with thirty-seven victims of a late-nineteenth century killer, Pendergast approaches Kelly, an archaeologist at the (fictional) New York Museum of Natural History, to ask her help in examining the site before the powerful company building on the land can rebury the bones.

Kelly and Pendergast determine that the victims were surgically dissected while still alive, and the bodies sealed in what was once the basement of a museum called “Shottum’s Cabinet of Natural Productions and Curiosities.” Pendergast is interested in the one hundred-year-old murders for reasons of his own, but as he and Kelly begin their research, a present-day serial killer commits the first of several homicides identical to those found in Shottum’s Cabinet. Kelly shares her findings with New York Times reporter Bill Smithback, and together with Pendergast they race to stop a nineteenth century killer who is apparently still at work.

Authors Preston and Child offer fascinating historical descriptions of the actual and counterfeit “curiosities” displayed in early museums. Smithback and Agent Pendergast each visit cabinets of curiosities in the course of their investigation—one real, one evoked through a kind of self-hypnosis. The eerie, maze-like archives and vaults of the New York Museum of Natural History are based on Preston’s knowledge of the actual American Museum of Natural History. Fans of Preston and Child will also learn more about Special Agent Pendergast, a cross between Fox Mulder and Sherlock Holmes, whose background and motives are revealed more clearly in the course of this story.