I can't remember the last time a book frustrated me so often, and so deeply, yet still managed to be so much fun. If only Preston and Child could have devoted the same amount of attention to character building as to treasure hiding, this could have been a stellar read. What frustrates me is that I know they can do it. Agent Pendergast is one of the greatest characters being written today, and they usually manage to surround him with a solid cast of strong, intelligent, well-rounded characters. Here, however, they seem to have gotten lazy, trusting in the technical and adventurous thrills to deflect attention away from their weakest point - the human element upon which, unfortunately, the entire climax is so precariously perched.
What initially drew me to Riptide was it's fictionalization of the Oak Island treasure hunt. I mean, really, what Canadian kid hasn't dreamed of being the first to discover just what is buried on the small, Nova Scotia island? All the historical elements are here, from the succession of failed digs, to the flagstones and timbers, to the uncontrollable flooding of the pit. In moving the island to the coast of Maine, Preston and Child also up the stakes, incorporating a series of gruesome deaths into their story, and inventing Edward Ockham to take the place of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd as the pirates behind the treasure.
It's here that they truly shine, not only adding some interesting narrative depth to the history of the pit, but also devising a really clever explanation for it's construction. Incorporating the natural flaws, caverns, and sinkholes of the real Oak Island into their pirate traps, they also weave in elements of historical architecture to hold it all together. The investigation and analysis of the island is sound, and even if you know it can't be that easy, you really do expect the treasure hunters to succeed with each new solution. Preston and Child also know just how long to prolong the suspense, making each successive failure work to draw the reader in, without ever pushing him away in exasperation.
For some reason, though, Preston and Child can't just be content with a treasure of buried gold and jewels. Instead, they have to invent a mystical artifact in St. Michael's Sword, and make that the focus of the treasure hunt. The whole sword idea just feels odd and out-of-place, right from the start, and it's wielded so awkwardly, you have to wonder if either of them really knew what to do with it. Ultimately, it provides a far too easy, far too convenient explanation for the curse, and one that is mishandled badly. I can't count how many times I wanted to reach into the book and slap a character for not seeing the obvious. Really, with all these doctors, scientists, and ex-military personnel involved, how did nobody else figure it out? Had just one of them turned on the damned piece of equipment Preston and Child went to such lengths to draw our attention to early on, the mystery would have been solved.
That brings us back to the characters. Their stupidity notwithstanding, they are a pretty solid bunch of characters for about two-thirds of the book . . . and then the laziness sets in. For no other reason than it makes for an action-packed climax later on, Captain Neidelman is suddenly rewritten to be this crazy, paranoid, homicidal maniac who will stop at nothing to attain St. Michael's Sword. Not only that, but his second-in-command is inexplicably transformed into a mindless brute of a henchman. Toss in an awkwardly placed preacher who exists primarily to bash you over the head with the "greed is bad" message, and you've got a climax that has deus ex machina written all over it.
Had they left St. Michael's Sword out of the equation, and been content to let the pirates (and their treasure pit architect) be the villains of the story, this could have been a fantastic read. All of the elements were there for it to succeed, if only Preston and Child could have resisted the temptation to tack on such a heavy-handed bit of mystical nonsense and moralistic messaging. Despite all that, it still managed to be a fun read, and one that I'd happily recommend as a mindless beach read - with an emphasis on mindless.