Old Bones (Nora Kelly Book 1) by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing | Release Date: August 20, 2019 | Pages: 384
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
When word landed that Nora Kelly, a character that made her solo debut in 1999’s Thunderhead and has since been a recurring character in several of the authors’ Pendergast novels, was to finally get a series centering her front and proper I was pretty damn enthused. Given the propensity for the authors to pack in plenty of scientific rigor, twisty mysteries, and loads of adventure, I figured this was going to be some tasty brain candy. Unfortunately, my high expectations just weren’t met and the title Old Bones just feels way too apt for this sluggish non-thriller.
Nora finds herself recruited by historian Clive Benton, a descendant of the infamous and doomed Donner Party, to search for The Lost Camp where many emigrants to California met their end to cannibalism and madness. While she and her team of archaeologists work with Benton to uncover these old remains, FBI rookie Agent Corrie Swanson is investigating a series of murders and desecrated graves that all point toward a common ancestor — one of the doomed pioneers from that ill-fated expedition west.
Fans of Preston & Child will recognize characters like Nora and Corrie, both of whom have played supporting roles to the popular Agent Pendergast over the course of several of his novels. Seeing them striking out on their own, however, isn’t as rewarding as it should be. Old Bones lacks the thrills and tension of prior Preston & Child books, and it creeps along at a slow but determined pace. Instead of thrills and high adventure, much of the book’s narrative relies too heavily on repetitious details.
The authors start out with a bang, setting up what should have been an interesting mystery about stolen skulls and the race to find a murderer. There’s a promising idea at the core of Old Bones, but it feels like neither Preston nor Child knew what to do with it. They spent a lot of time narratively spinning their wheels and treading water, going nowhere fast. The bulk of Nora’s side of the story involves uncovering a dig site, going back to camp for dinner and a ghost story, and recapping the details of the Donner Party, who killed who, and who survived. Corrie’s side of the story involves investigating a murder or a disappearance, making wild speculations, and being told by her supervisor to reign it in and that’s she making the same mistakes every other rookie has made. Rinse and repeat for damn near every chapter. Eventually, the two stories intertwine, but by the time some additional murders and a dash of conspiracy and paranoia get tossed into the mixed, it’s far too late to be of any real interest. The reveal of the book’s antagonist comes as no surprise at all, and the unwrapping of why such extremes were undertaken is too neatly resolved and with too little exploration, at that.
While I was delighted at the chance to see Nora taking the lead on a book of her own, for the first time since 1999, I felt supremely disappointed that both her and Corrie’s agency were severely undercut in the book’s denouement. Considering that much of Corrie’s story element involves dealing with local yokels and good old boys who think they know better than this little girl with a badge, it’s self-defeating that both her and Nora need a man to solve one of this book’s puzzles on their behalf. I won’t get into the details of it, but I will say it’s ultimately a disappointing and ham-fisted bit of fan service.
In fact, disappointing, ham-fisted fan service pretty well sums up Old Bones as a whole. Preston & Child have shown countless times that they know how to write complex and engaging thrillers. Sadly, Old Bones isn’t one of them. This one’s slow and creaky, content to tell you the same little factoids gleaned from Google over and over and over. While I do look forward to another expedition with Nora Kelly and Corrie Swanson, Old Bones should have been left buried.