Old Bones is the start of a new series by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, starring Nora Kelly, the archaeologist who assisted Agent Pendergast through five novels, and featuring Corrie Swanson, the junior FBI agent who was mentored by Pendergast through five novels of her own. It's a story of murder, cannibalism, survival, and hidden treasure, based on the true story of the tragic Donner Party.
For the first 47 chapters (88% of the book), this is a five-star thriller all the way. It's one of those books you sit down with, intending to read a few chapters, only to repeatedly find yourself asking, "And then what happened?" . . . until it's hours later and you're halfway through. I breezed through this in an evening and an afternoon, drawn as much by the history and the archaeology as the overarching mystery.
Although I was already a Nora fan from her previous appearances, it was reassuring to see that she's just as capable of leading a novel as she is a team. Her passion and her dedication shine through even the cold and the rain, and seeing her sort of mentor Clive Benton, book-based historian, allows her to explain a bit more about archaeological technique without sounding like Preston & Child are info-dumping. Similarly, getting to see Corrie juggle her first field assignment for the FBI, fighting against small town minds as much as the perception of her age, made for an interesting side-story that eventually intersects with Nora's in a big way.
This isn't the fastest-paced novel Preston & Child have written, nor is it the most tense, but it moves along at a satisfying pace, and the mystery is more than sufficient to keep you reading. It's a mystery with layers, both past and present, and there are some nice ghost-story touches that remind us of the heavy weight of history buried in the mountains. The whole story of the little girl roaming the mountains, looking for her missing leg, paired with the discovery of her skeleton is particularly effective. The buried gold is a total MacGuffin, there only to spur the search and fuel tensions among the dig team and their guides, but it does lend itself to one of the more interesting twist betrayals we've ever come across in these books.
That brings me back to my opening question about the final pages. While the twist in motive is one I'm entirely fine with, and would have liked to see explored in more detail, it is the twist in villains that had me groaning, shaking my head, and cursing the authors. It's a twist that comes out of nowhere, with nothing to back it up, and the explanation we do get is as thin as the twist itself. It just does not work. Preston & Child have had some weak endings in the past, and sometimes you need to suspend disbelief a bit to make them work, but this was just plain lazy and cheap.
As for the epilogue, I'm somewhat torn on that. It wasn't a total surprise, and I did kind of enjoy it, but I also felt as if it took something away from Nora and Corrie, especially with how it resolves the story's last puzzle. Overall, it's taken me a few days to decide how I feel about Old Bones as a whole. In the end, it's very much like the ghost story of Samantha Carville - a damned fine, creepy little skeleton to admire, but one that's sadly missing a supporting limb.
Hardcover, 384 pages
Expected publication: August 20th 2019 by Grand Central Publishing
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this title from the publisher. This does not in any way affect the honesty or sincerity of my review.