A Dark Gem Created by Accident
When you list off great Goth literary characters in both book and film, it’s easy to focus on the usual Gothic who’s who: Anne Rice’s LeStat (of The Vampire Chronicles), the Wachowski’s Neo (of The Matrix), Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein (of Frankenstein), Tim Burton’s Jack Skellington (of The Nightmare Before Christmas), or almost any protagonist of Edgar Allen Poe. However, there is another literary character that easily deserves to join the Gothic pantheon: Agent Aloysius Pendergast.
The personality of Pendergast might be summed up as a modern, Gothic take on Sherlock Holmes, but, that’s only half true, because Holmes had no use for people…only the solving of cases. However, much like Michael Weston of Burn Notice and Neal Caffrey in White Collar, Pendergast is as much a social engineer as an erudite sleuth. (So much so that half the joy I’ve found in reading the books has been the fact that you don’t know what Pendergast will say next and you vicariously wish you could get away with saying the things he does. This is no more true than in the most Gothic of his novels, Still Life with Crows. More on that later.) Along with Sherlock Holmes, Neal Caffrey, and Michael Weston, the character is spiced with generous doses of Dexter (from Showtimeâ€™s Dexter), Data (from Star Trek: the Next Generation), and Dream (from Sandman).
Described as looking and dressing like “an albino undertaker,” the pale-skinned and pale-eyed Pendergast is a New Orleans FBI agent who comes from enough family money that he is able to afford to wear exquisite black suits from Europe, have an entire floor of a Gothic apartment building in NYC to himself, and be conveyed in a chauffeured Rolls Royce to crime scenes.
To go along with this familial largesse is enough family sin that Pendergast became an agent out of a compulsion to right what wrongs he can as a form of penance. Of course, because of his financial resources (and his past successes), he is able to pick and choose the cases he chooses to associate with. The cases that hit his radar most often are killings of supernatural appearance and those having to do with dark sociopathy.
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, the co-authors of the series, didn’t actually intend to create the Pendergast character originally. Instead, as they worked on the flagship book, Relic–which introduced a female protagonist named Margo Green–they had a fight about two police officers Preston had created. Child complained that they were virtually identical and wouldn’t it be better if one was “a fish out of water.” The attack on his creativity rankled Preston who snarked back with, “What? Like an albino from New Orleans?” To which Child responded, “An albino from New Orleans…yeah, I think we could work with that.” (The authors are quick to point out that the character is “not actually albino…just very, very pale.“)*
Remembering the surreal birth of the sleuth who has since been in 12 novels (the most recent of which being Two Graves, which was released in December), Child states that it was like:
“[Pendergast] stepped up and shook our hands, a little disdainfully, and said, ‘I will be your character, thank you.’ No other character we’ve invented materialized so suddenly and so completely.”
So, if your interested in getting into the Pendergast series and its dark J.J.-Abrams-like backstories, where do you start? Because Pendergast was an add-on character in his first two books, those books actually read most like prequels to the Pendergast saga. Theyâ€™re a great way to get some interesting backstory on a number of characters which will continue to show up throughout series, but theyâ€™re not the best representation of the series for a newcomer, who will make up their mind as to â€œshould I stay or I should I goâ€ (to quote the Clash) within a book or two.
As such, you really need to start with The Cabinet of Curiosities which kicks off with Pendergast firmly in the driverâ€™s seat (which youâ€™ll quickly find is where he belongs) in a New York City investigation into the skeletons in the closet of a 100 year old serial killer. If you enjoy that one then the follow up, Still Life with Crows, will rock your socks off as the often city dwelling Pendergast is forced to go to a backwoods Kansas town, adopting the town’s only Goth girl as his protÃ©gÃ© and impulsive sidekick. For everyone whoâ€™s been a victim of small minded bigotry, the brilliant demeanor of Pendergast and the things he pops off with to those who are too full of themselves will make you get up and cheer.
And, if you prefer to listen to audio books, the Pendergast series is fully represented. While some other voice talents have helped bring the early series to life, it is most fully embodied in later books by the amazingly talented Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine, Soul Reaver 2, Benson), whose ability with fine Southern gentry makes his presentations riveting! (He even looks fairly like Pendergast.)
Unfortunately, right now, there are no plans to make the Pendergast series into a film. I say the Pendergast series because, when Relic was made into a feature film by Paramount in 1997, in a choice even more freakish than Bruce Lee being passed over in favor of David Carradine for the lead in Kung Fu, Pendergastâ€™s character was actually deleted.
According to a December interview with Preston & Child in the TulsaWorld Scene, Child stated about the film:
“Pendergast was in the early version of the ‘Relic’ script, but he didn’t make the final screenplay…He was probably just too hard to write, not to mention cast.”
“Paramount still controls his character rights in terms of film, and we keep hoping that they will show interest in making a Pendergast movie. We have no idea who to cast.â€
As far as casting, for my money, Daniel Craig with his watery, silver-blue eyes would be a great choice so long as he could do the accent and provided his blonde locks got the full Game of Thrones’ Dragonborn-silverhair treatment.
Of course, if the Paramount controls of Pendergast only exist in relation to feature films, then following the pattern of the UKâ€™s Sherlock–a modernized television adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyleâ€™s seminal novels–might hold the key to a cross-media adaptation. After all, the cutting edge style of Sherlock could easily be adapted for the Pendergast series (which often has a similar two person chemistry). Considering that Viacom (who owns Paramount Pictures) doesnâ€™t own any television networks which would be particularly appropriate for something like a Pendergast showâ€”which would flourish on channels like AMC, USA, or even SyFyâ€”itâ€™s indeed possible that the authors still have the rights for television. If so, hopefully AMC will make a bid, as we could all use a high quality adaptation of Pendergast and AMC could use another show that is regularly winning Emmies!