Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
Although the idea underlying the plot of Fever Dream is interesting, the novel itself veers between melodramatic and lame (particularly the climax). In addition, it leaves the reader with a cliffhanger designed to draw you into the next novel, so at the end of the novel you find yourself with an incomplete, lame and melodramatic ending which is spectacularly unsatisfying.
The novel opens as Aloysius Pendergast and his wife Helen enjoy a hunting safari in Africa. Within pages Helen is dead, eaten by a lion as a hunt goes wrong. The novel jumps twelve years, to (now) Special Agent Pendergast unexpectedly discovering that it wasn’t a tragic accident; Helen was murdered. Pendergast enlists police lieutenant Vicent D’Agosta in an intense and bitter search for who murdered Helen – and why.
This reads like part of a series and as though you’d benefit from having read earlier novels in the series. However, the authors note under a list of their novels that “almost all are stand-alone novels that need not be read in order”. So they don’t give you a lot of guidance about the half-baked character histories. There is a great deal about Pendergast and his cohorts that seems to be references to character development in earlier books; in fact, there’s an entire subplot about his ward Constance that seems utterly irrelevant. It has no connection to the plot of this novel. It has no real start or end, either; I have to assume that this is rooted in an earlier novel and will be resolved in a later. This sense of being dumped in the middle of a series with no real clues detracted significantly from my enjoyment of the novel.
However, the idea that underlies the plot – the reason why Helen was killed – is intriguing and the novel is at its best when it’s focused on this element. Helen was secretly obsessed with the painter John-James Audubon, and as Pendergast discovers this obsession and retraces her search for the long-lost painting known as the Black Frame, a very interesting idea emerges. Unfortunately the novel doesn’t do it justice; I would have loved to see this explored by better writers.
Overall, this novel was extremely melodramatic. Even by the standards of renegade-misfit-eccentric-rebel law enforcement characters, Pendergast is somewhat crazed. It’s really hard to suspend disbelief for long enough to accept that someone would actually let this guy loose with a badge and a gun, especially as he doesn’t do a single official thing in this novel. It’s not helped by the fact that he takes a Sherlock Holmesian approach to his investigation – brilliant deductions rather than solid investigation. In addition, many of the “twists” in the plot simply made me roll my eyes – they were over the top, and often telegraphed well in advance. More than a few clichés made their appearance too.
Much about this plot is never really coherent. Even when we know who killed Helen, it’s not clear why on earth they went to the trouble of having her killed
by “accident” by a man-eating lion. Let’s face it, there are many cheaper and simpler ways to kill someone, ways with less chance of something going wrong – and ways that would cause less pain to the victim. When it becomes clear who killed Helen you’ll wonder anew why they chose that particular method. In fact, the climax which supposedly revealed all left me with a lot of questions about behaviour that simply didn’t make sense. A good crime novel should leave you with a sense that events made sense (even if it was a twisted, psychopathic version of sense). This one doesn’t.
There is a touch of the paranormal about this novel, in hints about Pendergast’s past and family history, and particularly around his ward, Constance. Little is made of these hints, however, and few fans of speculative fiction would regard the novel as belonging to the genre.
Essentially, I didn’t think much of this novel. The characters were unconvincing and melodramatic. The plot wasted a good idea with its lack of conviction and coherence. The ending was lame, with a really unsubtle cliff hanger. I’m not sure whether it would have been much improved by having read any earlier novels – the characters may have been more fully rounded, but I suspect I’d still have found them melodramatic. I can’t see that having more background would have improved the plot or ending. Although this novel may appeal to fans of one or both of the writers, and the basic plot idea is intriguing, Fever Dream is weak and unlikely to appeal to readers with wide experience of crime fiction.