The Cabinet of Curiosities (2002)

The Cabinet of Curiosities is actually the fourth book in this series by coauthors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs (The other novels are Relic, Reliquary and Thunderhead). Both authors have far reaching knowledge, and one worked at a natural history museum. In the other novels I have read from this duo, a "man vs. nature" theme dominates, but this time things are a little different. (As an aside, it's not "man vs. nature" like in a Jack London novel. Rather it's a high tech modern man who thinks with his expansive knowledge of science he can control and dominate nature. However, nature ends up winning in the end like in the London works).

The cabinets referred to in the title refer to collections of objects that were around in NYC in the mid 1800's. They were put together by amateur collectors, and inexpensive admissions attracted the masses. They were a blend of a little science, and a lot of shock value. Our modern equivalent is a Ripley's Believe It Or Not exhibit more than any natural history museum. Still, out of these exotic collections, New York's American Museum of Natural History, a collection unrivaled anywhere, was born.

Our novel starts when Nora Kelly, an archaeologist for the Museum of Natural History, is summoned to a stunning finding- thirty corpses in an old coal tunnel on the former site of one of these cabinet of curiousities. With boyfriend Smithback (both characters from previous novels) they embark on a dig to the truth that criss crosses both modern day Manhattan, as well as the city from the latter nineteenth century. Quite appropriately, there are multiple stops at the Museum where a bulk of the plot takes place. There is also a side trip through the Five Points area of 1870 Manhattan, which doesn't exist in modern day, but you may recall it from the setting of the film Gangs of New York which even has a DVD featurette about this haven for the poor and immigrants.

Warning: Science Content!

True to my new mission, there are some medical mistakes in the end. The description of the abdominal gunshot wound, and its treatment is riddled with errors. I can tell you that there is no way that a bullet that ruptures a spleen, would also take out the left colic vein as it is quite far away and take out quite a few other structures getting there. Also, like in many other parts of the body, the veins and arteries are bundled together. That means that any bullet that destroys a vein would also destroy the artery, realizing that unlike a knife, a bullet causes at least a cone of injury as it passes through structures. Finally, the description of the patient ligating their own colonic vein, which is virtually impossible without the artery as well, thus requiring a colon resection from the subsequent ischemia is far more fantasy than any reality. I'll buy someone suturing their arm or leg, but a self done trauma laparotomy, by someone with no medical training other than "pre-med" (which is basically nothing for surgical procedures) is never going to happen. It would have been better for the other character present, who took a medical school anatomy class, to control the hemorrhage.

Breathe a sigh of collective relief with that off of my chest. That medical moment was sponsored by The Armchair Critic. Feel free to comment below either way.

Medical nitpickin' aside, The Cabinet of Curiosities is one well planned, researched, and written novel. It is seriously creepy, and held my attention throughout with quite a bit of suspense at several points. While I thought I had it figured out early on, I was only partially correct, and it was far more complicated than I envisioned. If you want something a little different than a traditional thriller, with a side trip thrugh the bizarre, then put The Cabinet of Curiosities on your reading list.

Overall Grade: A-

No comments: