The devil is in the details

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs
(Warner Books, 494 pages, $25.95)

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Reviewed by John Orr
August 2004

When Agnes Torres, rosary in hand, finds her obnoxious and profane employer's body, she has no doubt about what has happened. ''The devil had finally come for Jeremy Grove.''

''Mr. Jeremy wasn't sleeping ... A sleeping man wouldn't be lying with his elbows raised above the bed, fists clenched so hard that blood had leaked between the fingers. A sleeping man wouldn't have his torso scorched and caved in upon itself.''

Praying in Spanish Torres finds, burned into the floor, a cloven footprint. Later, bits of sulfur -- brimstone -- are found, scattered around.

When the police investigate, they find that Grove had spent his last hours recanting of his nastiest art reviews, trying to make amends with artists he had trashed, and calling a bishop to beg for help in casting out the devil.

And, Grove's body had burned from the inside out, leaving the bed on which it lay untouched by flame. Hours after death, his internal organs still read at hotter than 120 degrees.

It was that detail that led me to immediately and correctly guess the means of Grove's death in ''Brimstone,'' a thrilling new mystery from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. But the who eluded me for a long time, despite liberal clues that seem obvious in hindsight. And the why required a much more brilliant deductive mind than my own.

Happily, Preston and Child have such a sharp fellow in their stable of characters, in FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast, star of several Preston-Child books, including ''Cabinet of Curiosities'' and ''Still Life with Crows.''

Pendergast is a wonderful creation. A wealthy and genteel Southerner, he is possessed of education, wit, charm, perspicacity, intelligence and street smarts. His custom clothes are at once elegant and full of tricks, such as hidden lock picks and bits of costumes and make-up.

I loved a scene in which Pendergast tells the upper-crust opera lover, Count Fosco, ''Opera has always struck me as vulgar and infantile. I prefer the symphonic form: pure music, without such props as sets, costumes, melodrama, sex and violence.''

Fosco responds by booming out, ''Braveggia, urla! T'affretta a palesarmi il fondo dell'alma ria!''

And Pendergast ripostes by immediately translating the Puccini: ''Shout, braggart! What a rush you're in to show me the last dregs of your vile soul!''

Pendergast is joined on this adventure by Sgt. Vincent D'Agosta of the Southampton Police Department -- who was Lt. D'Agosta of the New York Police Department when he and Pendergast first met, in ''Relic.''

D'Agosta is plenty smart, if not as well educated or elegant as Pendergast, and the two make a great team. The story of D'Agosta's descent from big city lieutenant to smaller-town sergeant is, I think, a subtle joke from Preston and Child. Because D'Agosta had quit the NYPD to write mystery novels. That effort crashed and burned, taking his marriage with it; he is being punished by his creators for muscling in on their territory. They also have a lot of fun trashing critics, using the dead Grove as their stalking dummy.

Turns out Grove had many enemies and no friends, which makes for a wide pool of suspects, but Pendergast and D'Agosta are soon helped by other eerie killings, which increase the number of available clues, in Manhattan and in Florence, Italy. Which makes for a fun read for mystery fans.