Thunderhead, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Warner, 1999, 533 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60837-8

By now, every serious beach reader should be familiar with Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s shtick. As “commercial” writers whose objective is simply to make a living writing bestsellers, their modus operandis is clear after half a dozen such works… and Thunderhead is in no way a departure. Most of their usual elements are somewhere to be found in here.

It starts with a family trauma and a dash of archaeology. Plucky heroine Nora Kelly is a gifted but unfocused archaeologist, following in the footsteps of an absent father who disappeared sixteen years previously on a quest to find Quivira, the lost city of the Anasazi in south-western Utah. Suddenly, a letter from her father lands in her mailbox, a mystery that may reveals the location of the lost city and the fate of her father.

In fairly short order, she uses space-age techniques to track down a promising path and convinces a rich backer to finance her expedition. A few pages later, she’s headed in the wild with a group of explorers whose personalities will form a lot -but not most- of the book’s suspense. Also tagging along is Bill Smithback, the journalist protagonist of Preston and Child’s previous The Relic and Reliquary.

In many ways, Thunderhead is a pleasant throwback/update to the type of lost-civilisation adventure novel that was so popular when our planet wasn’t so civilized. With satellite imaging, all-terrain trucks and computer analysis techniques, lost civilisations have disappeared faster than a new suburb can take over another farm. But in this novel, we’re back on the hunt in narrow canyons, tracking a city that may or may not contain tons of gold.

But who says gold or even “new discoveries” in a Preston and Child novel inevitably implies an excruciatingly painful death for the discoverers (Hey, they’re just borrowing from Crichton: “thou shall not want wealth or forbidden knowledge, especially if thou love high technology.”) Pretty soon -what do you know- the members of the small expedition start dropping dead in a way that may or may not be a supernatural fashion.

Well, okay, it’s not supernatural, but with the usual wildebeests running around and slaughtering the protagonists, you wouldn’t expect anything else. In any case, the innocents are butchered, the evil characters soon exhibit psychotic tendencies and some protagonists may -or may not- find the loot, explain the mysteries and escape with their lives.

Fans of lightly-didactic escapist reading will have a lot of fun reading about the lost-lost Anasazi, the archaeological mystery of their disappearance, the techniques used in modern archaeology and how the space shuttle can help find forgotten trails. Child and Preston, like many if not most of their bestselling colleagues, understand the importance of research and little bundles of fun facts to keep their readers happy.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot to be happy about in Thunderhead. It’s not terribly new, fresh or subtle, but it just works. Despite my sarcastic attitude, I had no problem reading through Thunderhead in fairly short order. The book doesn’t quite have a perfect rhythm (some parts do drag, especially when it comes to Nora’s brother subplot) but it works more often than it doesn’t, and that’s the most important thing when it comes to escapist summer reading.

Fans of the authors’ previous books will find plenty of the same here. There are plenty of thrills—natural, artificial or human. The conclusion seems hopelessly copied from one too many Hollywood thrillers (note to bestselling authors; stop assuming that all your novels will be optioned). Even as far as best-selling writers go, Preston and Child still manage to be reasonably original: Every book changes venue and is reasonably distinct from one another. (It would be time to ditch the “ultimate rainstorm” plot point, though; after four books, it’s getting old.) Still, readers should know the drill by now; their name is a stamp of equal quality, whatever the book you’re picking from them.

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