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In 1876, in a mining camp called Roaring Fork in the Colorado Rockies, eleven miners were killed by a rogue grizzly bear. Corrie Swanson has arranged to examine the miners’ remains. When she makes a shocking discovery, town leaders try to stop her from exposing their community’s dark and bloody past.
Just as Special Agent Pendergast of the FBI arrives to rescue his protege, the town comes under siege by a murderous arsonist who-with brutal precision-begins burning down multimillion-dollar mansions with the families locked inside. Drawn deeper into the investigation, Pendergast discovers a long-lost Sherlock Holmes story that may be the key to solving both the mystery of the long-dead miners and the modern-day killings as well.
Now, with the ski resort snowed in and under savage attack-and Corrie’s life suddenly in grave danger-Pendergast must solve the enigma of the past before the town of the present goes up in flames.
A True Story
August 30, 1889
The young doctor bid his wife good-bye on the Southsea platform, boarded the 4:15 express for London, and arrived three hours later at Victoria Station. Threading his way through the noise and bustle, he exited the station and flagged down a hansom cab.
"The Langham Hotel, if you please," he told the driver as he stepped up into the compartment, flushed with a feeling of anticipation.
He sat back in the worn leather seat as the cabbie started down Grosvenor Place. It was a fine late-summer evening, the rarest kind in London, with a dying light falling through the carriage-choked streets and sooty buildings, enchanting everything with a golden radiance. At half past seven the lamps were only just starting to be lit.
The doctor did not often get the chance to come up to London, and he looked out the window of the hansom cab with interest. As the driver turned right onto Piccadilly, he took in St. James's Palace and the Royal Academy, bathed in the afterglow of sunset. The crowds, noise, and stench of the city, so different from his home countryside, filled him with energy. Countless horseshoes rang out against the cobbles, and the sidewalks thronged with people from all walks of life: clerks, barristers, and swells rubbed shoulders with chimneysweeps, costermongers, and cat's-meat dealers.
At Piccadilly Circus, the cab took a sharp left onto Regent Street, passing Carnaby and the Oxford Circus before pulling up beneath the porte cochere of the Langham. It had been the first grand hotel erected in London, and it remained by far the most stylish. As he paid off the cabbie, the doctor glanced up at the ornate sandstone façade, with its French windows and balconies of wrought iron, its high gables and balustrades. He had a small interest in architecture, and he guessed the façade was a mixture of Beaux-Arts and North German Renaissance Revival.
As he entered the great portal, the sound of music reached him: a string quartet, hidden behind a screen of hothouse lilies, playing Schubert. He paused to take in the magnificent lobby, crowded with men seated in tall-backed chairs, reading freshly ironed copies of The Times and drinking port or sherry. Expensive cigar smoke hung in the air, mingling with the scent of flowers and ladies' perfume.
At the entrance to the dining room, he was met by a small, rather portly man in a broadcloth frock coat and dun-colored trousers, who approached him with brisk steps. "You must be Doyle," he said, taking his hand. He had a bright smile and a broad American accent. "I'm Joe Stoddart. So glad you could make it. Come in—the others just arrived."
The doctor followed Stoddart as the man made his way among linen-covered tables to a far corner of the room. The restaurant was even more opulent than the lobby, with wainscoting of olive-stained oak, a cream-colored frieze, and an ornate ceiling of raised plasterwork. Stoddart stopped beside a sumptuous table at which two men were already seated.
"Mr. William Gill, Mr. Oscar Wilde," Stoddart said. "Allow me to introduce Dr. A. Conan Doyle."
Gill—whom Doyle recognized as a well-known Irish MP—stood and bowed with good-humored gravitas. A heavy gold Albert watch chain swayed across his ample waistcoat. Wilde, who was in the midst of taking a glass of wine, dabbed at his rather full lips with a damask napkin and motioned Conan Doyle toward the empty chair beside him.
"Mr. Wilde was just entertaining us with the story of a tea party he attended this afternoon," Stoddart said as they took their seats.
"At Lady Featherstone's," Wilde said. "She was recently widowed. Poor dear—her hair has gone quite gold from grief."
"Oscar," Gill said with a laugh, "you really are wicked. Talking about a lady in such a manner."
Wilde waved his hand dismissively. "My lady would thank me. There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." He spoke rapidly, in a low, mannered voice.
Doyle examined Wilde with a covert look. The man was striking. Almost gigantic in stature, he had unfashionably long hair parted in the middle and carelessly thrown back, his facial features heavy. His choice of clothing was of an eccentricity bordering on madness. He wore a suit of black velvet that fitted tightly to his large frame, the sleeves embroidered in flowery designs and puffed at the shoulders. Around his neck he had donned a narrow, three-rowed frill of the same brocaded material as the sleeves. He had the sartorial audacity to sport knee breeches, equally tight fitting, with stockings of black silk and slippers with grosgrain bows. A boutonnière of an immense white orchid drooped pendulously from his fawn-colored vest, looking as if it might dribble nectar at any moment. Heavy gold rings glittered on the fingers of his indolent hands. Despite the idiosyncrasy of his clothing, the expression on his face was mild, balancing the keen quality of his eager brown eyes. And for all this the man displayed a remarkable delicacy of feeling and tact. He spoke in a curious precision of statement, with a unique trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning.
"You're most kind to be treating us out like this, Stoddart," Wilde was saying. "At the Langham, no less. I'd have been left to my own devices otherwise. It's not that I want for supper money, of course. It is only people who pay their bills who lack money, you see, and I never pay mine."
"I fear you'll find my motives are completely mercenary," Stoddart replied. "You might as well know that I'm over here to establish a British edition of Lippincott's Monthly."
"Philadelphia not large enough for you, then?" Gill asked.
Stoddart chuckled, then looked at Wilde and Doyle in turn. "It is my intention, before this meal is complete, to secure a new novel from each of you."
Hearing this, a current of excitement coursed through Doyle. In his telegram, Stoddart had been vague about the reasons for asking him to come to London for dinner, but the man was a well-known American publisher and this was exactly what Doyle had been hoping to hear. His medical practice had had a slower start than he would have liked. To fill the time, he'd taken to scribbling novels while waiting for patients. His last few had met with a small success. Stoddart was precisely the man he needed to further his progress. Doyle found him pleasant, even charming—for an American.
The dinner was proving delightful.
Gill was an amusing fellow, but Oscar Wilde was nothing short of remarkable. Doyle was captivated by the graceful wave of his hands; the languid expression that became quite animated when he delivered his peculiar anecdotes or amusing bons mots. It was almost magical, Doyle considered, that—thanks to modern technology—he'd been transported in a few short hours from a sleepy seacoast town to this elegant place, surrounded by an eminent editor, a member of Parliament, and the famous champion of aestheticism.
The dishes came thick and fast: potted shrimps, galantine of chicken, tripe fried in batter, bisque de homard. Red and yellow wine had appeared at the beginning of the evening, and the generous flow never ceased. It was astonishing how much money the Americans had; Stoddart was spending a fortune.
The timing was excellent. Doyle had just begun a new novel that Stoddart would surely like. His penultimate story, Micah Clarke, had been favorably reviewed, although his most recent novel, about a detective, based in part on his old university professor Joseph Bell, had been rather disappointingly received after appearing in Beeton's Christmas Annual…He forced himself back to the conversation at hand. Gill, the Irish MP, was questioning the veracity of the maxim that the good fortune of one's friends made one discontented.
Hearing this, a gleam appeared in Wilde's eyes. "The devil," he replied, "was once crossing the desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of fiends were tormenting a holy hermit. The man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched their failure and then stepped forward to give them a lesson. 'What you do is too crude,' said he. 'Permit me for one moment.' With that he whispered to the holy man, 'Your brother has just been made bishop of Alexandria.' A scowl of malignant jealousy at once clouded the serene face of the hermit. 'That,' said the devil to his imps, 'is the sort of thing which I should recommend.'"
Stoddart and Gill laughed heartily, then began to fall into an argument about politics. Wilde turned to Doyle. "You must tell me," he said. "Will you do a book for Stoddart?"
"I was rather thinking I would. The fact is, I've started work on a new novel already. I was thinking of calling it A Tangled Skein, or perhaps The Sign of the Four."
Wilde pressed his hands together in delight. "My dear fellow, that's wonderful news. I certainly hope it will be another Holmes story."
Doyle looked at him in surprise. "You mean to say you've read A Study in Scarlet?"
"I didn't read it, dear boy. I devoured it." Reaching into his vest, Wilde pulled out a copy of the Ward Lock & Co. edition of the book, with its vaguely Oriental lettering so in vogue. "I even looked through it again when I heard you would be dining with us this evening."
"You're very kind," Conan Doyle said, at a loss for a better reply. He found himself surprised and gratified that the prince of English decadence would enjoy a humble detective novel.
"I feel you have the makings of a great character in Holmes. But…" And here Wilde stopped.
"Yes?" Doyle said.
"What I found most remarkable was the credibility of the thing. The details of the police work, Holmes's inquiries, were enlightening. I have much to learn from you in this way. You see, between me and life there is a mist of words always. I throw probability out of the window for the sake of a phrase, and the chance of an epigram makes me desert truth. You don't share that failing. And yet…and yet I believe you could do more with this Holmes of yours."
"I would be much obliged if you'd explain," Doyle said.
Wilde took a sip of wine. "If he's to be a truly great detective, a great persona, he should be more eccentric. The world doesn't need another Sergeant Cuff or Inspector Dupin. No—make his humanity aspire to the greatness of his art." He paused a moment, thinking, idly stroking the orchid that drooped from his buttonhole. "In Scarlet, you call Watson 'extremely lazy.' In my opinion, you should allow the virtues of dissipation and idleness to be bestowed on your hero, not his errand boy. And make Holmes more reserved. Don't have delight shining on his features, or have him barking with laughter."
Doyle colored, recognizing the infelicitous phraseology.
"You must confer on him a vice," Wilde went on. "Virtuous people are so banal; I simply cannot bear them." He paused again. "Not just a vice, Doyle—give him a weakness. Let me think—ah, yes! I recall." He opened his copy of A Study in Scarlet, leafed quickly through the pages, found a passage, and began to quote Dr. Watson: "'I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.'" He returned the book to his vest pocket. "There—you had the perfect weakness in your hands, but you let it go. Pluck it up again! Deliver Holmes into the clutches of some addiction. Opium, say. But no: opium is so dreadfully common these days, it's become quite overrun by the lower classes." Suddenly Wilde snapped his fingers. "I have it! Cocaine hydrochloride. There's a novel and elegant vice for you."
"Cocaine," Doyle repeated a little uncertainly. As a doctor, he had sometimes prescribed a seven percent solution to patients suffering from exhaustion or depression, but the idea of making Holmes an addict was, on the face of it, quite absurd. Although Doyle had asked for Wilde's opinion, he found himself slightly put out at actually receiving criticism from the man. Across the table, the good-humored argument between Stoddart and Gill continued.
The aesthete took another sip of wine and tossed his hair back.
"And what about you?" Doyle asked. "Will you do a book for Stoddart?"
"I shall. And it shall be under your influence—or rather, Holmes's influence—that I will proceed. Do you know, I've always believed there's no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written—that's all. But I find myself taken with the idea of writing a book about both art and morals. I'm planning to call it The Picture of Dorian Gray. And do you know, I believe it will be rather a ghastly story. Not a ghost story, exactly, but one in which the protagonist comes to a beastly end. The kind of story one wishes to read by daylight—not lamplight."
"Such a story doesn't seem to be exactly in your line."
Wilde looked at Doyle with something like amusement. "Indeed? Did you think that—as one who would happily sacrifice himself on the pyre of aestheticism—I do not recognize the face of horror when I stare into it? Let me tell you: the shudder of fear is as sensual as the shudder of pleasure, if not more so." He underscored this with another wave of his hand. "Besides, I was once told a story so dreadful, so distressing in its particulars and in the extent of its evil, that now I truly believe nothing I hear could ever frighten me again."
"How interesting," Doyle replied a little absently, still mulling over the criticism of Holmes.
Wilde regarded him, a small smile forming on his large, pale features. "Would you care to hear it? It is not for the faint of heart."
The way Wilde phrased this, it sounded like a challenge. "By all means."
"It was told to me during my lecture tour of America a few years back. On my way to San Francisco, I stopped at a rather squalid yet picturesque mining camp known as Roaring Fork. I gave my lecture at the bottom of their mine, and it was frightfully well received by the good gentlemen of the camp. After my lecture, one of the miners approached me, an elderly chap somewhat the worse—or, perhaps, the better—for drink. He took me aside, said he'd enjoyed my story so much that he had one of his own to share with me."
Wilde paused, wetting his thick, red lips with a delicate sip of wine. "Here, lean in a little closer, that's a good fellow, and I'll tell it you exactly as it was told to me…"
Ten minutes later, a diner at the restaurant in the Langham Hotel would have been surprised to note—amid the susurrus of genteel conversation and the tinkle of cutlery—a young man in the dress of a country doctor abruptly rise from his table, very pale. Knocking over his chair in his agitation, one hand to his forehead, the man staggered from the room, nearly upsetting a waiter's tray of delicacies. And as he vanished in the direction of the gentlemen's toilet area, his face displayed a perfect expression of revulsion and horror.
Corrie Swanson stepped into the ladies' room for the third time to check how she looked. A lot had changed with her since she'd transferred to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the beginning of her sophomore year. John Jay was a buttoned-down place. She had resisted it for a while, but finally realized she needed to grow up and play the game of life instead of acting the rebel forever. Gone were the purple hair, the piercings, the black leather jacket, the dark eye shadow and other Goth accoutrements. There was nothing she could do about the Möbius strip tattoo on the nape of her neck, beyond combing her hair back and wearing high collars. But someday, she realized, that would have to go as well.
If she was going to play the game, she was going to play it well.
Unfortunately, her personal transformation had taken place too late for her advisor, a former NYPD cop who had gone back to school and turned professor. She got the feeling his first impression of her had been that of a perp, and nothing she'd done in the year since she'd first met him had erased that. Clearly, he had it in for her. He had already rejected her first proposal for the Rosewell thesis, which involved a trip to Chile to do a perimortem analysis on skeletal remains discovered in a mass grave of Communist peasants murdered by the Pinochet regime back in the 1970s. Too far away, he said, too expensive for a research project, and besides it was old history. When Corrie replied that this was the point—these were old graves, requiring specialized forensic techniques—he said something about not involving herself in foreign political controversies, especially Communist ones.
Now she had another idea for her thesis, an even better one, and she was willing to do almost anything to see it happen.
Examining herself in the mirror, she rearranged a few strands of hair, touched up her conservative lipstick, adjusted her gray worsted suit jacket, and gave her nose a quick powdering. She hardly recognized herself; God, she might even be mistaken for a Young Republican. So much the better.
She exited the ladies' room and walked briskly down the hall, her conservative pumps clicking professionally against the hard linoleum. Her advisor's door was shut, as usual, and she gave it a brisk, self-confident rap. A voice inside said, "Come in."
She entered. The office was, as always, neat as a pin, the books and journals all lined up flush with the edges of the bookshelves, the comfortable, masculine leather furniture providing a cozy air. Professor Greg Carbone sat behind his large desk, its acreage of burnished mahogany unbroken by books, papers, family photographs, or knickknacks.
"Good morning, Corrie," Carbone said, rising and buttoning his blue serge suit. "Please sit down."
"Thank you, Professor." She knew he liked to be called that. Woe to the student who called him Mister or, worse, Greg.
He settled back down as she did. Carbone was a strikingly handsome man with salt-and-pepper hair, wonderful teeth, trim and fit, a good dresser, articulate, soft-spoken, intelligent, and successful. Everything he did, he did well, and as a result he was an accomplished asshole indeed.
"Well, Corrie," Carbone began, "you are looking well today."
"Thank you, Dr. Carbone."
"I'm excited to hear about your new idea."
"Thanks." Corrie opened her briefcase (no backpacks at John Jay) and took out a manila file folder, placing it on her knee. "I'm sure you've been reading about the archaeological investigation going on down in City Hall Park. Next to the location of the old prison known as the Tombs."
"Tell me about it."
"The parks department has been excavating a small cemetery of executed criminals to make way for a new subway entrance."
"Ah yes, I did read about that," said Carbone.
"The cemetery was operational from 1858 to 1865. After 1865, all execution burials were moved to Hart Island and remain unavailable."
A slow nod from Carbone. He looked interested; she felt encouraged.
"I think this would make for a great opportunity to do an osteological study of those skeletons—to see if severe childhood malnourishment, which as you know leaves osteological markers, might correlate with later criminal behavior."
Another nod from Carbone.
"I've got it all outlined here." She laid a proposal on the table. "Hypotheses, methodology, control group, observations, and analysis."
Carbone laid a hand on the document, drew it toward himself, opened it, and began perusing.
"There are a number of reasons why this is a great opportunity," she went on. "First, the city has good records on most of these executed criminals—names, rap sheets, and trial records. Those who were orphans raised in the Five Points House of Industry—about half a dozen—also have some childhood records. They were all executed in the same way—hanging—so the cause of death is identical. And the cemetery was used for only seven years, so all the remains come from roughly the same time period."
She paused. Carbone was slowly turning over the pages, one after another, apparently reading. There was no way to tell what he was thinking; his face was a blank.
"I made a few inquiries, and it seems the parks department would be open to having a John Jay student examine the remains."
The slow turning of the pages paused. "You already contacted them?"
"Yes. Just a feeler—"
"A feeler…You contacted another city agency without seeking prior permission?"
Uh-oh. "Obviously I didn't want to bring you a project that might get shot down later by outside authorities. Um, was that wrong?"
A long silence, and then: "Did you not read your undergraduate handbook?"
Corrie was seized with apprehension. She had in fact read it—when she'd been admitted. But that was over a year ago. "Not recently."
"The handbook is quite clear. Undergraduate students are not to engage other city departments except through official channels. This is because we're a city institution, as you know, a senior college of the City University of New York." He said this mildly, almost kindly.
"I…Well, I'm sorry, I didn't recall that from the handbook." She swallowed, feeling a rising panic—and anger. This was such unbelievable bullshit. But she forced herself to keep her cool. "It was just a couple of phone calls, nothing official."
A nod. "I'm sure you didn't deliberately violate university regulations." He began turning the pages again, slowly, one after the other, not looking up at her. "But in any case I find other problems with this thesis proposal of yours."
"Yes?" Corrie felt sick.
"This idea that malnourishment leads to a life of crime…It's an old idea—and an unconvincing one."
"Well, it seems to me worth testing."
"Back then, almost everyone was malnourished. But not everyone became a criminal. And the idea is redolent of…how shall I put it?…of a certain philosophy that crime in general can be traced to unfortunate experiences in a person's childhood."
"But malnourishment—severe malnourishment—might cause neurological changes, actual damage. That isn't philosophy; that's science."
Carbone held up her proposal. "I can already predict the outcome: you'll discover that these executed criminals were malnourished as children. The real question is why, of all those hungry children, only a small percentage went on to commit capital crimes. And your research plan does not address that. I'm sorry, this won't fly. Not at all."
And, opening his fingers, he let her document drop gently to his desk.
The famous—some might say infamous—"Red Museum" at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice had started as a simple collection of old investigative files, physical evidence, prisoners' property, and memorabilia that, almost a hundred years ago, had been put into a display case in a hall at the old police academy. Since then, it had grown into one of the country's largest and best collections of criminal memorabilia. The crème de la crème of the collection was on display in a sleek new exhibition hall in the college's Skidmore, Owings & Merrill building on Tenth Avenue. The rest of the collection—vast rotting archives and moldering evidence from long-ago crimes—remained squirreled away in the hideous basement of the old police academy building on East Twentieth Street.
Early on at John Jay, Corrie had discovered this archive. It was pure gold—once she'd made friends with the archivist and figured out her way around the disorganized drawers and heaping shelves of stuff. She had been to the Red Museum archives many times in search of topics for papers and projects, most recently in her hunt for a topic for her Rosewell thesis. She had spent a great deal of time in the old unsolved-case files—those cold cases so ancient that all involved (including the possible perps) had definitely and positively died.
- "Another highly entertaining and genuinely thrilling story from Preston & Child starring their romantic, faintly gothic, and always mysterious FBI agent, Aloysius Pendergast. As always the prose is elegant, replete with exquisite descriptions, and this time we're treated to dashes of historic characters Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, as well as a positively delicious serving of the great Sherlock Holmes. Through myriad shocks, surprises, twists and turns, the suspense never lets up. Great fun to the last page."—Anne Rice
- "A mile-a-minute thriller with a deeply entertaining plot and marvelous characters, in a setting that will chill your blood, and not only because it's 10 degrees below zero and covered with snow. My copy is full of crumbs because I couldn't put it down long enough to eat."—Diana Gabaldon
- "WHITE FIRE is as incandescent as its title, a beautifully organized, tautly paced book that really did just yank me in and demand that I keep reading. I'm very grateful for the experience."—Peter Straub
- "Preston and Child have created a terrific mix of mystery and the unexpected that will keep you reading into the late hours of the night. They promise a great read and they have delivered."—Clive Cussler
"Pendergast--an always-black-clad pale blond polymath, gaunt yet physically deadly, an FBI agent operating without supervision or reprimand--lurks at the dark, sharp edge of crime fiction protagonists."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Preston and Child continue their dominance of the thriller genre with stellar writing and twists that come at a furious pace. Others may try to write like them, but no one can come close. The best in the business deliver another winner."—RT Book Reviews on Cold Vengeance
- "This is no dream; it's the authors' best book in years. Pendergast has to rein in his feelings to pay attention to the details, and it's fun to see the role reversal between him and the usually emotional D'Agosta. Not to be missed by either newcomers or die-hard fans."—Library Journal (starred review) for Fever Dream
- On Sale
- Nov 12, 2013
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing