Old Bones by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Monday, August 19, 2019 at 7:40AM
TChris in Douglas Preston, Lincold Child, Thriller

Published by Grand Central Publishing on August 20, 2019

Dr. Nora Kelly is an archeologist who has appeared in the authors’ Pendergast novels. Clive Benton has studied the history of the Donner Party, whose ill-fated trip to the Sierra Nevada included cannibalism. After acquiring Tamzene Donner’s lost journal, Benton wants Nora to lead an expedition to find the Lost Camp, the only camp of stranded Donner Party members that was never found. Benton also hopes to find a large quantity of gold coins.

Corrine Swanson is a new FBI agent, although she is also in the Pendergast stable of characters. She’s assigned to investigate a murder at a Civil War graveyard on federal property. The victim was hired to dig up a grave and was killed by his employers after they stole half of the body he uncovered. Further investigation reveals that graves of other individuals of common ancestry have been disinterred, that a woman in that same genealogical line has gone missing, and that another person in that line, Albert Parkin, was part of the Donner Party.

Old Bones tells a familiar story of an archeological dig, conducted by Nora and a couple of archeology students, with Benton acting as an advisor. A few additional characters guide the archeologists into the mountains and help them set up camp. Eventually, someone disturbs the bones they find, some bones are stolen, someone dies, and Swanson rides in on horseback to investigate.

Also familiar is Swanson’s status as a plucky rookie who pieces together information about grave robbers and is certain she’s on the trail of a serious crime, while her jaded boss wants her to end the investigation and devote her time to provable crimes. The story takes a supernatural twist when a character claims to have seen a ghost, presumably the ghost of a child who was unhappy she didn’t receive a proper burial after her leg was eaten. The ghost (or at least a floating green light) helps out the characters on a couple of occasions. I guess readers who like ghosts will appreciate the spectral addition, but it seemed out of place to me.

The plot generates little suspense. The wrongdoer’s identity is fairly obvious. Preston and Child make a halfhearted attempt to mislead the reader as to the wrongdoer’s motivation, but the reader would have to ignore half the plot to fall for it. Old Bones does manage a couple of surprises near the end, although the eventual explanation for the disinterred bodies is too farfetched to take seriously.

I’ve enjoyed most of Preston & Child’s Pendergast novels (Pendergast makes a cameo in the epilog, and his brief appearance is the best part of the story). I’ve been less satisfied by their other offerings, most of which are weaker than the Pendergast series. They have a tendency in those novels to fuel formulaic stories with stock characters and stale ideas. Characters are made sympathetic in predictable ways (Carrie’s unfortunate childhood makes her reach out to another kid with an unfortunate childhood, an unimaginative way of encouraging the reader to feel good about her) but they suffer from a lack of multiple dimensions.

Still, character development isn’t terribly important in a thriller if the plot excites. This one doesn’t. Preston & Child wield the thriller formula with skill, so their novels are always easy to read. Dedicated Preston & Child fans might enjoy Old Bones, but there are better choices on the thriller market.


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