Warner, 1998, 465 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60717-7
Most Canadian schoolboys are familiar with the story of Oak Island, a small piece of land located in the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles away from Nova Scotia. It would be a completely unremarkable island if it wasn’t for one fabulous story; the rumor of a fantastically well-protected treasure hidden under the surface.
It began with the discovery of a tree with a rope-burnt stump by two boys. It continued with various digs, constantly frustrated by the influx of water rushing into the pit through, possibly, cleverly engineered flooding tunnels. The Money Pit has killed a dozen men so far, and bankrupted at least twice as many. Is there a treasure down there? D’Arcy O’Connor’s excellent non-fiction book The Big Dig seems to indicate so. But unless we develop engineering techniques considerably more advanced than those of today, we’ll probably never know.
So ends the “real” story of Oak Island, with all the wonderfully dramatic loose ends implied (I’ve left out rumors of gold bullion, mega-rich pirates, Bacon-being-Shakespeare and various hard evidence of something strange under the island). To get a reasonably satisfying story about Oak Island’s treasure, we must turn to fiction: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Riptide.
Given the well-known story of Oak Island and the author’s usually careful research, it’s somewhat frustrating to note that nowhere in Riptide is any acknowledgement of the source story. American chauvinism? Maybe.
In any case, the initial setup is identical: An island on the eastern seaboard, a fantastic treasure, deadly engineering. For added dramatic effect, Preston & Child move the island to Maine and adds a tortured character who’s already lost a brother to the island.
At the novel’s beginning, an all-out engineering effort is assembled to finally conquer the island and get the treasure out. This being a modern techno-thriller, however, you can be sure that they won’t. (The days of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, when protagonists could become millionaires on discovered treasures, are long past. The new techno-thrillers dictate that ambition and determination is to be squished flat for the sin of arrogance. They call that progress.) It becomes apparent as soon as a preacher warns everyone against the corruption of money that this won’t have a cheery ending. But don’t worry: Even though the treasure is indeed lost, there’s a pretty good reason for that. Chances are that readers, at least, won’t feel cheated at all.
And while Preston & Child’s novels have elevated the scientist-punishment ending to new levels of clichés, it’s indeed quite rare to feel cheated by their books. They know what they’re doing. The pacing is snappy, the details are fascinating and there’s always something interesting going on. Sure, their characters are only adequate and their hypocritical anti-science shtick is wearisome (like Crichton, they revel in the possibilities while decrying them.), but overall, it’s decent entertainment.
There are annoyances, for sure; Readers will guess part of the big secret well before the protagonist (who’s supposed to be a doctor but never makes the link between missing teeth, burns and failing immunological systems.) and guess another plot twist pages before the “team of experts” does (“What if there’s more than one flooding tunnel?”). The ending is overlong and needlessly drawn-out. The human villain is unnecessarily evil, illustrating once more the authors’ obsession with painting ambition as unmitigatingly bad.
But never mind. Riptide, with all its flaws, stands as the duo’s best novel yet, a blockbuster thriller with flaws but also a lot of fun. It’ll be a special treat for everyone who has ever heard about Oak Island and wondered what might lie down there. Preston and Child have done their homework and delivered an imaginative thriller with a lot of bang for the buck. Don’t miss it if you like the treasure-hunting genre.