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Between the Lines: Preston and Child are back with ‘Blue Labyrinth’

The latest novel to feature FBI special agent Aloysius Pendergast explores his background like never before.
The latest novel to feature FBI special agent Aloysius Pendergast explores his background like never before. Grand Central

Collaborations between writers aren’t a common model in fiction, though James Patterson and his ever-changing stable of co-authors has been astonishingly successful.

But when it comes to a full-time, consistent writing team, no one can match the bibliography of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Together they’ve published 23 novels, 14 of them in the Aloysius X. L. Pendergast series, along with a slew of titles written independent of each other.

The new Pendergast novel is “Blue Labyrinth,” in which the eccentric detective spends an agonizing amount of time on the verge of death (Grand Central, $27, 404 pages).

Pendergast is one of the most eccentric and fascinating detectives in the thriller genre, a wealthy iconoclast and FBI special agent (in name and badge only) who insists on a “salary” of only $1 year. Among many other things, he is a former Special Forces operative, an impeccable gentleman, a deadly foe, a food and wine connoisseur, a terrible dresser, a master of many disciplines including combat and a form of Eastern mysticism, and a relentless investigator given to disguises and antique firearms. Call him a charming though acerbic cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, though he doesn’t play the violin or chase women.

The authors met when Preston worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the 1980s and submitted his first nonfiction book, “Dinosaurs In the Attic,” to St. Martin’s Press. There, young editor Child was assigned to the book project, an “excursion” through the museum. The two soon became friendly.

“At a certain point, Linc said, ‘I want a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum,’” Preston recalled during a recent three-way phone conversation. “I didn’t have the authority to do that, but I got some keys and took him on a tour late one night when the museum was closed.”

As they explored dark hallways and hidden rooms full of “bones, pickled whale eyeballs, ceremonial masks and things with curses on them,” Child recalled, “I turned to Doug and said, ‘This is the biggest haunted house anyone could imagine. We’ve got to write a thriller set in this building.’”

Years later, the result of that midnight tour was the New York Times best-selling “Relic,” a 1995 techo-thriller (and later a movie) which introduced Pendergast. “The museum has been a main character in our books ever since,” said Preston. Ironically, the FBI agent’s movie character was left on the cutting-room floor.

Child lives in New Jersey, while Preston has homes in Maine and Santa Fe.

“Our relationship is less like a long-distance romance and more like an old married couple’s,” said Child.

“It takes the two of us to make sure we don’t make fools of ourselves,” added Preston.

Visit them at www.prestonchild.com. There, readers can subscribe to the “Pendergast File,” a monthly newsletter. A reader’s forum is at www.prestonchild.yuku.com.

What strengths do each of you bring to the Pendergast series?

Child: Doug brings a strong scientific background, and he is excellent at writing action scenes. I bring a certain incisiveness to the prose, based on my years as an editor. Our writing style (for the series) is better than anything we could produce on our own.

What about disagreements?

Preston: We always have disagreements because we don’t let the other get away with anything that’s less than really good. In the early years, the emails would go flaming back and forth. But we realized if both of us are arguing over how a scene should go, the best solution is to find a third way.

What is Pendergast’s origin?

Child: When we were writing “Relic,” Doug did the lion’s share of the chapters, and I did the outlining and revising. In an early chapter, he had two Italian cops. I wrote him, saying, “They’re identical. Shouldn’t one be different from the other?” Immediately annoyed and defensive, Doug wrote back, “Like what? Some albino from New Orleans?” I said, “We can work with that.”

(The two policemen became one character and) Doug came back with an FBI agent, a character who was witty and droll. and more importantly knew about art (which was vital to the plot). That inspired me to add my own touches, like he has swept-back hair and sharp cheekbones, and a feline way of walking. He’s not an albino, but he’s very pale. Pendergast sprang fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. He inserted himself and won’t go away. We’re slaves to his will.

Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson, while Pendergast has New York City Detective Lieutenant Vincent D’Agosta.

Preston: In many ways, Pendergast is a dark, twisted Holmes. He has some of those same deductive abilities and fascinations, but laid on top of that is a cynical view of human nature and life and happiness. His methods are very unorthodox. There is a long history of criminality in his family, and in a certain sense he’s a bit of an outlaw himself.

Obviously, you’re BFF with Pendergast.

Preston: He is more of a real person to us than may of the real people we know. He really exists for us.

Child: I like him because of the kinds of things he does and says. It’s fun to put him into situations and see what happens. There’s some part of his personality for each reader to admire, whether it’s his erudition, his ability to handle himself in difficult situations, his tastes in cars and fine wines, and his ability with a bon mot. He’s a fascinating conversationalist, but he can be grating and chilly.

Preston: He’s like a very close relative who has a lot of personality quirks. You don’t want to spend a lot of time with him, but you’re very happy to see him when you do.

Child: We’ve taken pains in recent books to give all his family history and put him into life-threatening situations. We don’t want him to seem like a superman gliding through his cases with ease. “Blue Labyrinth” is a capstone to all the Pendergast books because it brings out his history and past characters, and shows his deeper relationship with (his ward) Constance Greene and D’Agosta.

Speaking of Constance Greene, she was given “life-extending compounds” in the late 1800s and hasn’t aged in 120 years. She plays a big role in “Blue Labyrinth.” Given the demise of Pendergast’s wife, will he marry Constance?

Preston: The question of where their relationship is going is certainly an item of great speculation among our readers, but Pendergast has a very difficult relationship with women.

Child: Constance would probably be receptive to (marriage), but whether Pendergast would be as receptive is far more questionable. We’re not promising anything, but you never know.

What’s the special agent’s next move?

Preston: He gets a late-night call at his mansion, from a stranger who asks him to take on a private case, as Holmes was often asked to do. The man’s wine cellar was ransacked and his basement wrecked. The only thing the thief left is an old, dusty bottle of (rare wine). Pendergast says, “I will take the case, and my fee will be that bottle of wine.”

When the new client leaves, Constance turns to him and says, “Are you crazy? Not only are you taking on a trivial case, you’re accepting a bottle of wine as payment.” He explains that the wine is one of the greatest and least known in wine connoisseur-dom, and one bottle is more than enough for payment.

Child: That’s how the first chapter goes. Of course, it’s a case about much more than a ransacked wine cellar, but we want there to be uncertainty in our readers’ minds.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

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