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Literature / The Cabinet of Curiosities

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The Cabinet of Curiosities is a novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, first published in 2002, and is the third novel in their informal Agent Pendergast series.

When a construction crew unearths an old coal tunnel, thirty-six bodies of young men and women killed over a century ago are uncovered. While the developers and police dismiss it as irrelevant and ancient history, Agent Pendergast takes an interest, enlisting the help of Dr. Nora Kelly to discover the origin of these horribly mutilated corpses. Their investigations take them into the amazing world of Cabinets of Curiosities, the origins of The New York Museum of Natural History, and the story of what is possibly New York's first serial killer. But all the while something is lurking in the shadows, and someone is killing people with the same horrible, surgical precision of 130 years ago.

Not to be confused with the horror anthology television series Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Alone with the Psycho: Smithback goes to investigate Leng's old house on his own, expecting to find an empty old house. He finds the surgeon and is captured as Nora and Pendergast figure out where he is and rush to save him.
  • Apocalyptic Log: Shottum's letter detailing his last days and his horrible discoveries.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Smithback does this to get in to the museum's personnel archives. He tries it on Fairhaven, but that man knows how to deal with Smithback.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: According to Pendergast's great-aunt Cornelia, the French consider "May your dearest wish come true" to be the direst curse a person can lay on another.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: We get our first glimpses into the scandal that is the Pendergast family history. Including A great aunt who is locked up in a hospital for the criminally insane, a great grand uncle who dabbled in voodoo, became a serial killer to devise an immortality serum and sought to wipe out humanity, a distant grandfather who peddled "medicine" that killed scores of people, including his own wife, and the family did something to make the locals burn down their New Orleans mansion.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The baby mammoth sideshow trick.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Fairhaven is a relatively minor character for the majority of the novel and after a few encounters with Smithback is all but forgotten as everyone is swept up trying to stop the Surgeon, who is almost entirely expected to be Enoch Leng. Then near the end it turns out that Leng was murdered by Fairhaven in his attempt to gain immortality for himself.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: Mary Greene's last words.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Fairhaven undertakes extensive torture to get Leng to reveal his immortality elixir. He never gets it out of him before he accidentally kills him.
  • Dead All Along: While it turns out Leng was able to crack the code to the formula he needed to extend his life, after being played up as the real killer after all this time it turns out he was murdered by Fairhaven shortly before the events of the book started.
  • Description Porn: An entire two page chapter is devoted to describing the antique surgeon's kit in excruciating, loving detail.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: At a few points in the novel, Pendergast goes into a trace-like state to mentally recreate the scene of the original killings. During one of these, at one point he has a conversation with a girl named Constance who was a relative of one of those killed ... long before he comes to know the real deal in later books of the series.
  • Exact Words: I'm on the Triceratops in the back.
  • Freudian Excuse: Fairhaven becomes obsessed with immortality as a result of watching his older brother die a horrible death from old age at sixteen thanks to progeria.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Leng's ultimate motivation. He wished to extend his own life to have the time to figure out how to wipe out humanity. When he witnessed what nuclear weapons could do, he abandoned his quest realizing that the horribleness of humanity would eventually destroy itself.
  • Immortality Immorality: Pendergast is given the reasoning that the immortality formula can only lead to disaster. If it is held by the few privileged, the masses would eventually revolt in demanding it's wide availability. If it is widely available, it would lead directly to overpopulation. In either scenario, the potential for horrible people to gain extra decades and even centuries to ply their evil is unacceptable.
  • It Was with You All Along: Antoine Leng successfully developed a chemical formula that extended his life by at least a century; he wanted to give himself enough time to perfect a method of committing global genocide and experimented with a variety of deadly poisons and delivery systems. Pendergast remarks on the irony that Leng had the secret all along, but never realized it: all he had to do was reveal that the formula existed, and the world would have torn itself apart trying to gain possession of it.
  • Jack the Ripoff: The modern murders are pegged as copycat killings of the original 1880s murders. As it turns out, they are, and the copycat killer already murdered the original.
  • Mad Scientist: Enoch Leng.
  • Missing Episode: An epilogue was written, but not included in the published release. The authors debated over whether to include it, but ended up leaving it out. They have released it on their website in an unofficial form. It can be read here.
  • Never Found the Body: McFaddin.
  • Not That Kind of Doctor / Open Heart Dentistry - At the climax, The Surgeon surgically exposes Smithback's spine, then leaves him to bleed to death while he goes off to fight Pendergast. Nora, a Dr. of archaeology, has to stitch Smithback back up (no small task; remember, exposed spine) then administer IV fluid to prevent him from flat-lining from blood loss. Lampshaded by her internal monologue remarking how insane the situation is; also, after being stabilized by Nora, Smithback still needs to be operated on by an actual doctor to treat his injury and save his life.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Roger C. Brisbane III
  • Officer O'Hara: NYPD officer Patrick "Paddy" O'Shaughnessey, who is described as having "probably the most Irish name in New York." The book then goes on to subvert the trope at every turn, making him a boon to the investigation, a guy with a standard New York accent, and a lover of opera.
  • Perfect Poison: What Leng was truly in search of, and in enough quantities to wipe out humanity.
  • Playing with Syringes: The Surgeon keeps his victims complacent with shots of paralytic drugs.
  • Police Are Useless: Custer is a prime example.
  • Poisoned Weapons: One of Leng's ideas to disperse his poisons to the human race. It's what kills Fairhaven.
  • Put on a Bus: It's casually mentioned that Margo and D'Agosta (two of the major players from the previous novels) are in Boston working for a university and upstate writing crime novels, respectively.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Or, more accurately, house full of crazy in the extensive personal collections of Leng left in his mansion on Riverside Drive.
  • Serial Killer: The Surgeon and Dr. Enoch Leng.
  • So You Want to Live Forever: Leng's goal, but only a means to an ends for him. Fairhaiven plays the trope straight, looking for immortality out of a terrible fear of death.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Nora's physical description, character traits and role are almost identical to Margo Green.
  • Turn in Your Badge: O'Shaughnessey is placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into his conduct. He figures this is just a fancy way to fire him.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Pendergast agonizes over what to do with the immortality elixir when he finds it. Keep it to himself? Destroy it? Share it with humanity? In the end he realizes that no good could come of it's existence and he burns it. However, in the unofficial epilogue, he's memorized the formula before doing so and goes to pick up the ingredients afterward.