An expedition from the New York Museum of Natural History disappears in the jungles of the Amazon. Almost a year later, a smuggler in Brazil is brutally slain in the warehouse holding the last crates sent out by the ill-fated expedition. Now, the killings have begun within the Museum itself, first a pair of boys who got lost in the basement, then a guard on his rounds. All with peculiar mutilations to the bases of their skulls.
And so begins Relic, the first novel by the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. They introduce us to Margo Green, a doctoral student who is considering leaving her position at the Museum to return home to take over her late father's business, William Smithback, Jr., a hungry journalist hired to write a white-washed history of the Museum and chafing under the constant censorship handed down by the administration, and Dr. Frock, Margo's dissertation advisor and a brilliant scientist whose radical evolutionary theories have made him an outcast in academic circles. Lieutenant Vincent D'Agosta heads up the police contingent to investigate the museum murders. And into the chaos walks FBI Agent Pendergast, who always seems to know much more than he lets on.
The mystery of who, or what, is killing people in the Museum deepens as coroners determine that the killer has managed to punch holes in the victims' skulls and extracted the hypothalamus for reasons unknown. A claw is also found on one of the victims, though DNA testing is inconclusive, showing a bizarre mix of human and reptilian DNA. When Pendergast shows Margo and Frock a replica of what experts think the murder weapon might look like (some kind of bizarre 3-clawed hand on the end of a wand or fetish), they assure him that the Museum has nothing like it in its collection. But Frock can't help noticing that a cast of the wounds inflicted on a victim shows that whatever caused them flexed as a hand would...
The story races along with equal parts horror, adventure, and science to a gripping climax during the grand opening gala for the Museum's "Superstition" exhibition. The wealthy and powerful patrons are trapped inside and the Museum Beast roams free amongst them. In the end, they must rely on D'Agosta's quick thinking and Margo and Pendergast's new understanding of what the beast is really after if they hope to survive.
In the mid 80s, St. Martin's Press editor Lincoln Child had commissioned American Museum of Natural History writer Douglas Preston to put write a history of the Museum. One story states that during a midnight tour of the museum, Child, entranced by the ambiance of the darkened Hall of Late Dinosaurs and the looming skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, suggested to Preston that the hall would make the "perfect setting for a thriller." Another has Preston proposing a murder mystery set in a natural history museum, with Child countering by saying (as an editor, he would know) that mysteries are hard to make successful, but a techno-thriller, writen by the two of them, might be just the ticket. Whatever actually happened in those dark days, over the next several years, the two gave birth to Relic, published in 1995 by TOR.
Preston and Child proved themselves to be one of the best writing teams in the business. Despite working 2000 miles apart, they managed to put together a truly seamless novel with a unified storytelling style. Though the plot is similar to countless monster stories that have been written throughout the years, the origin and motivation of the Museum Beast, combined with truly unique and well-developed characters makes this one of my favorite novels to read and re-read. It has the feel of one of some of the particularly well-done X-Files episodes, with Agent Pendergast acting alternately as both Scully and Mulder, open to the extreme while using modern science to search for the plausible. It's dark and scary, and packed with the kind of partial glimpses of the truth that make for a great thriller. I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it, and, come to think of it, I still have trouble when I re-read it.
In 1997, Relic was released as a rather disappointing movie titled The Relic, starring Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Green and Tom Sizemore as Vincent D'Agosta. Gone were Agent Pendergast and Bill Smithback, and the Museum Beast became a giant half-dinosaur, half-insect creature called the Kothoga (in the book, the Kothoga were an Amazon tribe, and the beast was the Mbwun). While Stan Winston Studios does great special effects, and the Kothoga was an impressive beast, it wasn't enough to carry an otherwise mediocre monster movie, especially if you've already read the book.
Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child