'White Fire’: Thriller burns hot, leaves readers cold

Published: December 29 2013 | 7:00 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:22 am in
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Two authors wrote “White Fire,” and I was of two minds about the thriller. The book is the 13th entry in the adventures of Special Agent A.X.L. Pendergast, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and the first your reviewer has read. There are many passages in the novel that burn white hot, but there also are sections that left me cold.

“White Fire” (Grand Central Publishing, 368 pages, $27) largely is set in Roaring Fork, Colorado, where Corrie Swanson, a young woman in whose life and burgeoning career Pendergast is much invested, seeks permission to study the remains of miners who were killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in the late 1800s. Swanson finds herself crosswise of powerful local interests, and Pendergast soon is involved not only in the mystery of the miners’ deaths, but in the investigation of a series of brutal murders committed via arson.

At the heart of the mystery is a lost Sherlock Holmes story that may hint at the truth of what happened to the miners.

Preston and Child first hooked me in chapter 10 when Pendergast arrives at a town meeting to deliver some news that shocks community leaders and rescues Swanson from her legal woes. The scene is an excellent introduction to Pendergast’s voice and methodology. The authors follow that up with a tense and horrifying murder scene. Later, the duo offer up a credible Holmes tale and tie it neatly into their present-day story.

But other elements of the tale don’t work as well. Swanson and Pendergast’s relationship doesn’t feel authentic on the page, as Swanson generally either profusely thanks her mentor or hollers at him to leave her alone as the plot requires. The search for the missing Holmes story, while full of atmosphere and adventure, begs the question of why its author would have hidden it in the first place. And a meditative technique Pendergast uses to insert himself into events of the distant past is perhaps overly contrived.

Still, I suspect “White Fire” will satisfy fans of the series, and it serves a fine jumping on point for new readers.

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