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Four Trowels

THUNDERHEAD

By: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Warner Books, New York
1999 (hc)

A little over a year ago I reviewed Douglas Preston’s The Codex, and noted that Preston represented one half of the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, who as a team wrote awfully good thrillers and that I hoped to review one of their co-authored works at an early date.  Thunderhead, one of their earlier efforts, seemed an ideal choice as its plot is steeped in Southwestern archaeology and it is one heck of a thriller! 

The novel starts out with a bang as Nora Kelly, a rather junior archaeologist at the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, is viciously attacked in the abandoned ranch house that was once her home as a little girl.  Her assailants are foul creatures clothed in wolf-like apparel, creatures that bear only a slight resemblance to human beings!  She is rescued by her next door neighbor, Teresa Gonzales, but in the aftermath of the struggle finds a letter written sixteen years earlier by her treasure-hunting ne’er-do-well archaeologist father – the father who had gone missing at about the time the letter was originally written.  In the letter, her father claimed to have found a trail leading to the lost city of Quivira, a city of gold for which Coronado supposedly searched throughout the desert Southwest.  He claims the lost city is hidden among the labyrinthine canyons of Utah, and Nora, despite her somewhat shaky position within the Santa Fe Institute tries to persuade the aristocratic Chairman of the Board, Ernest Goddard, to allow her to mount an expedition to find the fabled city.  To her great surprise, Goddard agrees but stipulates that he will select the expedition crew—which will include is imperious yet brilliant and beautiful daughter, Sloane.  Early on the reader senses that Nora and Sloane—both queen bees of the expedition—may not be entirely suitable teammates!  But Goddard believes in the essential accuracy of Pat Kelly’s letter and that Quivira, if it truly exists, holds the answers to the fate of the Anasazi, the people who dwelt in the magnificent cliff dwellings like Chaco Canyon some 800 years earlier. 

The pace of the book is perfectly balanced between the slow, almost languid, narrative of the expedition winding through the canyons and cliff tops of Utah on horseback and brief moments of horrific revelation that tells the reader in no uncertain terms that this will be no ordinary archaeological survey.  A small cliff dwelling discovered along the way hint at dark practices of its aboriginal occupants; we find out that Nora’s neighbor and savior from attack, Teresa Gonzales, is herself brutally mutilated and killed; some of the expedition packhorses are ritually butchered.  And when Quivira is finally discovered in a long lost canyon, despite its being described by one of the senior field archaeologists as “one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time,” the very air of the long-dead city seems permeated with evil.  Why was such a resplendent city located so far from other Anasazi centers?  Why was it built with such attention to defensive concerns?  Why did it seem to have been abandoned in an instant, with everything left in situ?  Preliminary investigations point toward the possibility of abominable practices carried out at Quivira—with unmistakable signs of cannibalism and torture in a large tomb that seems more a charnel house than a resting place for the dead. 

Almost inevitably members of the crew begin to turn on each other; the expedition is imperiled by evil from the outside as it is apparent that they are being stalked by a devilish foe, by personal hatreds and jealousies that threaten them from within, and the forces of nature – a monstrous thunderstorm bears down on them—threatens to destroy them and everything else in its path.  

This is the literature of high adventure at its best and Preston and Child are among its best practitioners.  Thunderhead deserves a strong four trowels!

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.