Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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Diablo Mesa by Douglas Preston; Lincoln Child

Reviewed on: February 1, 2024

Grand Central Publishing:  New York City
2022 (HC)

The latest Nora Kelly thriller, third thus far in the series has, quite frankly, left me nonplussed. The first two-thirds of Diablo Mesa is vintage Preston and Child, master story tellers for more than twenty-five years.  Nora quits her position as lead archaeologist for the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute because Institute president Marcelle Weingrau and her toady assistant Connor Digby have assigned her to direct a project that she finds demeaning and potentially a career-killer: to excavate the 1947 UFO crash site at Roswell, New Mexico.  Even though the Roswell story had been de-bunked years earlier, billionaire Lucas Tappan has proposed a project to scientifically excavate the crash site, which he will fully fund and will, in addition, make a substantial unrestricted gift to the financially ailing Institute. Tappan is founder of Icarus Space Systems as well as a major financial supporter of alternate energy systems research and development—patterned perhaps after real-life gazillionaire Elon Musk. 

Leaving the headquarters of the Institute (ostensibly for the last time), Nora is confronted by the man himself—Lucas Tappen—who urges her to listen to his proposal.  He desperately urges her to re-consider leading his project, believing that the qualities she demonstrated in past projects made her the perfect person to undertake the Roswell project—qualities such as unyielding professionalism, skepticism and attention to archaeological detail.  When she learns from Tappan that her brother Skip—something of a lost soul in search of meaning to his life—has signed on to the project as an archivist and general dogsbody, she reluctantly agrees to at least look over the site and the crew he has assembled.  She finds both the excavation crew and the scientific team—including experts LIDAR mapping, geophysics, planetary geology, and astronomy.  The latter individual—Noam Botan—is also a firm believer that the earth has been under extraterrestrial observation and that he himself was the subject of an “alien abduction.”  Despite, or possibly because of her skepticism, Nora agrees to head up the project, which is set up on a desolate bit of New Mexico landscape called Diablo Mesa.

Before Nora and company can begin the UFO hunt, they must identify a more pressing anomaly—a burial site, either prehistoric or Spanish-era in nature, on the edge of the “crash site.”  To everyone’s consternation, the bodies prove to be quite contemporary—perhaps seventy years or so old—and obviously the result of an execution-style killing.  Because they were found on federal land under the aegis of the Bureau of Land Management, trainee FBI agent Corrie Swanson and her mentor, Special Agent Hale Morwood, are assigned to investigate.  Corrie had been intimately involved in Nora’s two earlier adventures, Old Bones and The Scorpion’s Tale.

What follows is a complex and intricately crafted tale of subterfuge and villainy that goes back more than seventy years but continues up to the present moment.  The efforts of the two “detectives”—one sworn to solve contemporary crimes and the other to solve mysteries of the past—merge as they face certain disaster on the high mesa of New Mexico.

This covers approximately 2/3 of Diablo Mesa and promises an exciting denouement.  But from this reviewer’s perspective, this is the point at which these talented writers “jump the shark”—a wonderful idiom referring to a certain Arthur Fonzarelli on a certain very popular 1970s television show—by introducing a preposterous “deep state” conspiracy and a “Close Encounters” denouement deep in Area 51 territory.  It was something of an Indiana Jones meets X-Files—although I guess that did sort of happen in “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull!”  As it is, I equally love both Indiana Jones and X-Files, but up to this point the Nora Kelly thrillers have been firmly planted in the reality of real archaeology, most likely the influence of author Preston, and my hope is that future Nora Kelly novels will return to that model.

Therefore, I am going to depart from my usual rating system and award four trowels to the first 2/3 of Diablo Mesa and one trowel for the final third—a cowardly cop-out, I readily admit!