The Forgotten Room: A Novel by Lincoln Child (Doubleday, 2015), 290 pages.
I am a great believer in coincidence, or, as Kelly Bundy used to say on Married With Children, co-inky-dink. So when I finally read this book (I read all books by Preston and Child, or Preston, or Child) between our return from Europe and our trip to Newport, Rhode Island and the east coast, I was pleased to see this book was set in Newport. I had bought the book when it came out in early May, dragged it through three countries in Europe in June, and read not a word until we were ready to leave for our trip east.
What could be better? A book set in Newport as you are planning a day touring the “cottages” of the obscenely wealthy like the Vanderbilt’s ostentatious Breakers and the Wetmore’s more modest 57-room Chateau-sur-Mer.
However, the Newport in the pages of Child’s book was very different from the touristy 4th of July weekend crowds in Newport. True, it is early autumn in the book (p. 8), but I can’t believe that the visitors all evaporate after Labor Day. We arrived on the same bridges as the protagonist, the “enigmalogist” professor Jeremy Logan, and took the same turns to reach Bellevue, the main street of mansion-land. But every inch of the way we battled family SUVs loaded with beachgoers, pokey oglers in pricey cars (perhaps yearning for the pre-income-tax days of yore that made much of the opulence possible), and exasperated locals stuck among the sluggish flow.
One last comment on Newport: after you’ve been to Windsor Castle and the Louvre and the Vatican, you can see the faux-royalty effects that the rich of America were striving for. But in my eyes, they are clearly derivative and poor imitations. The closest I came to feeling anything authentic was in the wood-carved rooms of Chateau-sur-Mer, done by the Italian Fellini. (Sometimes I feel I am betraying my peasant roots just by knowing this junk…unless you believe that crazy story about the Goralskis and the Romanovs and why my father’s side of the family is sprinkled with names like Anastasia and Nicolas… then again, I named my son Alexander…)
Anyway, the wise Professor Logan is summoned to a think tank called Lux, housed in a gigantic old mansion with east and west wings located (in the book) somewhere around the beaches on the southern fringe of Newport. Logan used to work there, until asked to leave, and there are still people around who are no happy he’s been invited back to solve a mystery. Exactly who is openly or covertly against him is a large part of the tension in the novel.
What mystery has Logan been summoned to solve? One of the senior computer science researchers has committed suicide in a very gruesome way, after babbling about hearing voices telling him to do things. After some sleuthing, it turns out that the old man was being eased out in favor of his young assistant and assigned to the renovation of one of the wings. Right before his death, the dead man had uncovered the forgotten room of the title, undisturbed since the 1930s, full of odd scientific equipment from the period of unknown purpose.
And so the enigmalogist has a real enigma on his hands. It’s not even clear how the sealed room was entered or who worked there, and it takes some more detecting to uncover the original blueprints, now in the hands of the beautiful and sexy (of course) woman who has inherited the firm.
I told you I have read all of Preston and Child’s works. I have to say, unfortunately, that this novel is really not up to the level I’ve come to expect from them individually and especially as a team. The main character is okay, but the situations are predictable and the payoff somewhat of a let-down after the terrific buildup. All of the thriller tropes are present: the strangers out to kill Logan and make it look like an accident, the strange old man who holds the key to the mystery, the femme fatale who turns up dead at exactly the wrong time, and the use of the machine in the forgotten room, which, when revealed, made me go “Oh. That’s it?” I think I expected more.
So this book is definitely worth reading. But I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are just getting into the novels of Preston and Child. It’s an okay read, but not up to the best work of either of them. Go back to Relic or, better yet, Still Life with Crows, which might be the best novel they’ve done individually or as cowriters.
This book should be characterized as science fiction (the focus of the fictional treatment revolves around of some aspect of a scientific field of inquiry). But it has many elements of a murder mystery whodunit and half-a-dozen “evil government” thrillers.
One other thought before I leave you. As I record my thoughts on the books I read this years, especially the novels, I am starting to realize a lot of things about my preferences that I “semi-knew,” but never examined in any detail before. I would rather have a book that starts with a slow build than one that – bang! – jumps out to an action start and then sags as the true story begins. I prefer linear, un-adorned prose rather than flowery, metaphor laden “pretty writing.” No deep literary fiction pour moi, please.
I do not have a metaphorical bone in my body, literally. (This seems like a statement that Ludwig Wittgenstein might be proud of: exactly what does it mean?)
I find rich prose and allusions in the narrative slow me down (I can give examples when I write up Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife) as my mind follows each link to consider their implications.
Just tell me the story!
I also find that I like being back into a routine. Between May 31, when we flew to London, and July 6, when we got back from New York, a total of 37 nights, I slept in my own bed 9 nights. My wife, who took professional development courses, was home only 5 nights. I look forward to a renewed cycle of read/think/write, which is sort of my own version of eat/pray/love. I’m lucky that my job requires me to do those same things, but on the topic of computers and computer networks.