The Cabinet of Curiosities, by Preston & Child

In the midst of a rather trying week, I selected this mystery to read. Mysteries not only absorb me into another world, but also fill most of my available brain-space with a puzzle to be solved.

Nora Kelly is an architect at the New York Museum of Natural History, where much of the story takes place. I went there for the first time a couple of years ago and was entranced. I wish I'd known about it earlier, when my boys were young. So I was delighted to plunge into descriptions of the museum's public areas and exhibitions, as well as the nether regions where scientists pursue research and archives collect dust.

Nora is approached by Special Agent Pendergast, who carries an FBI identity badge although his actual position within the FBI is unclear, who captures her attention by presenting her with a skull. He ropes her into investigating a construction site where the giant excavator has broken through to a foundation from the 1880s and discovered a cache of human remains.

Together they try to untangle the ancient crimes, with the assistance of Nora's sometime boyfriend, who is an investigative reporter, and the policeman assigned to Pendergast as a liaison. Although initially Nora doesn't want to get involved, being preoccupied by squabbles with her boss back at the museum, a small clue found at the site suddenly brings home to her the humanity of these relics, that these bones were once people, young people, with their own dreams and responsibilities.

The emotional journeys undertaken by all four of these major characters combined with the puzzle make for an absorbing read. One of the parts I liked best was the historical context of the cabinets of curiosties assembed by 19th century amateur naturalists. I've long been interested in that period's gentlemen-scientists, when untrained men with money and leisure pursued an interest in natural history or exploration or military science, sometimes with tragic consequences such as with Shackleton and Scott whose mistaken ideas led their Antarctic expeditions into danger, or the military officers whose inexperience and incompetence contributed to the grievous casualty lists in the Great War.

I call them amateurs because, unlike today, there were no educational programs in these fields to train potential scientists in an established curriculum, no gatekeepers to validate a self-proclaimed authority's credentials. Even the word “scientist” didn't exist before 1840, according to the OED. Granted, the military had training programs, but becoming an officer had more to do with social class and longevity than with leadership ability or military expertise.

Naturalists of the period assembled their own quirky collections, as described in some of A.S. Byatt's novels. Many went on to exhibit them as cabinets of curiosity. As part of a recent renovation, the Walters Art Gallery (itself based on the collection of Henry Walters) opened a series of rooms they call the Chamber of Wonders which is a recreation of such a personal collection, combining Etruscan artworks, coins from ancient Greece, and rare specimens of birds, to name just a few.

It's a fascinating exhibit. I was reminded of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and the Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia, both eccentric personal collections left intact for public view. According to the account here, the Museum of Natural History got its start buying up local cabinets of curiosities as their owners were forced into bankruptcy after the museum opened with free admission.

Another feature of this book that interested me was the partnership of authors. While reading, I found myself wondering how they divided up the work. Did they write alternate chapters? Or did each pursue a different part of the story? Slate is currently running a series on the creative potential of partnerships as opposed to the stereotype of the lone struggling genius. It makes for interesting reading.

Since horror and the paranormal/supernatural do not interest me, I confess I just ignored those aspects of the story. The mystery alone was sufficient suspense for me and distracted me from my trying week just as I'd hoped. At a writing workshop I was leading, I met a young woman who said that when she was sad or upset, she would lie down on her bed, pull up her favorite quilt, and lose herself in a book—exactly what I did with this mystery. Whatever else this book may be, it is a most effective transportation device.

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