Top positive review
Monstrously Bad Night at the Museum
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on November 28, 2022
Growing up, I enjoyed watching those 50s monster movies featuring giant creatures bent on destroying humanity. The police in those films were ineffective bumblers who soon became monster chow, and some scientists would gravely attribute the creature’s origin to exposure to nuclear radiation. The films were hokey and the special effects crude, but they were goofy entertainment. Those 50s creature features and the more recent TV series, “The X Files,” may have inspired Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s 1995 debut novel, “Relic.” There’s still a monster here, but most of the cops know what they’re doing, and the scientific explanation is intriguing. The result is a slick read that’s equally effective as a mystery and a horror novel.
“Relic” begins with several gruesome murders at New York City’s Museum of Natural History. The victims were beheaded with their brains partly sucked out. Readers should be aware that young children and dogs are among the victims in this book. The police suspect a serial killer or possibly an escaped wild animal. Since the museum has lots of dark, vacant space both above and underground, a killer has plenty of hiding places. Nonetheless, museum officials pull political strings to allow a big fundraising gala to take place, despite the objections of the cop in charge, Lt. D’Agosta. Also on hand is a visiting FBI agent from New Orleans, Pendergast, and a graduate student who works at the museum, Margo Green. Of course, the gala goes badly, and several dozen trapped VIPs have to get out of the museum while Pendergast and Green figure out how to stop the creature.
On one level, “Relic” is a well-written monster story. It follows many of the genre’s conventions. The characters include various museum officials, politicians, and an obnoxious senior FBI agent who insists on doing everything wrong because they know what’s best. The museum’s state-of-the-art security system naturally malfunctions at the worst time, closing security doors with people trapped inside. Margo and some other researchers eventually figure out the creature is a mutant with strains of different animal DNA in its makeup. (Readers today will enjoy observing how outdated the “cutting edge” technology of 1995 has become.) The scientific discussion here is plausible, not the usual nonsense from writers who have no idea about the subject. But eventually, the book boils down to a lengthy showdown with Pendergast trying to find the creature in some very spooky surroundings. When reading “Relic,” I thought of the more recent “Night at the Museum” movies that put a humorous spin on the same setup. The authors do a great job of establishing and maintaining suspense here.
“Relic” was the first book in the authors’ series featuring Agent Pendergast. This story is more of an ensemble piece, with Pendergast becoming the central character in subsequent novels. Still, “Relic” introduces readers to the New Orleans agent and his eccentricities. He comes to New York to investigate a possible link between the museum killings and some unsolved murders at the New Orleans docks years earlier. (That’s a big hint as to the creature’s origin.) Pendergast is somewhat like Sherlock Holmes, with a keen deductive instinct and a terrific ability to put jerks in their place. D’Agosta has a front-row seat as Pendergast slices stuck-up museum officials to bits. The dialogue in these sections is like what Nero Wolfe employs in dealing with those who give him a hard time. And as Pendergast gets a better idea of the nature of the creature hiding in the museum, the book slides effortlessly from standard police procedural to something out of the X Files.
For the first novel by two separate authors, “Relic” is a remarkably accomplished book. The story relies too much on cliches and obnoxious stock characters, but the three central characters are developed very well. In particular, the authors give Agent Pendergast the quirks and mannerisms that make for a successful mystery series. They also capture the essence of New York City life and the boardroom politics at the museum. Finally, in an epilogue, they fill in the missing details about the monster (with a major plot twist) and leave the door open for a sequel. I think this plot twist reveal would have been more effective earlier in the book (as it occurred in the movie adaptation), but it may still surprise some readers. “Relic” is that rare crossover title that both mystery fans and horror lovers will enjoy.