“Diablo Mesa is another contrived thriller that will appeal only to Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s loyal and unquestioning fan base.”
Archaeologist Nora Kelly reluctantly agrees to lead an excavation of the famed Roswell Incident site in search of evidence that the long-rumored UFO crash did in fact occur and was covered up by the government. Her sponsor, billionaire entrepreneur Lucas Tappan, is convinced that recent technological surveys provide incontrovertible evidence that alien artifacts are still there, waiting to be found.
Her first discovery, however, is an unmarked grave containing two unidentified murder victims and a strange metallic device. When her friend, FBI Special Agent Corrie Swanson, is called in to investigate, the bodies lead Corrie on a chase that will result in more murders and more cover up.
Will Nora and Corrie survive long enough to solve the mystery that has tantalized millions of people for decades?
Diablo Mesa is the third offering from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child in their popular Nora Kelly series, following Old Bones (2019) and The Scorpion’s Tail (2021). A spin-off from their very, very popular Agent Pendergast series, the Nora Kelly novels hook readers with a fascinating mystery connected to the past that requires Nora’s archaeological skill set and Corrie’s FBI credentials to solve.
What inevitably follows is a formulaic thriller that keeps their many fans turning the pages but leaves the rest of us disengaged, somewhat bored, and more than a little frustrated. Once again, a tantalizing premise is wasted in a pedestrian, poorly executed novel.
As a protagonist, Nora Kelly is surprisingly flat and predictable. Her professional side is mostly expressed through the excavation procedures she directs—the one-meter grids, the Day-Glo string, and the careful removal and screening of soil. We get run through the whole thing a couple of times, in fact, in case we missed pertinent details the first time around.
Her personal side, on the other hand, seems to be summed up by the speed with which she disrobes for her sponsor. We would never have guessed, going in, that she was this pliable, but there it is. And not so much a romantic element to the story as carnal lust materializing from out of nowhere.
Her friend, Corrie, is equally flat. Here we are, in the third novel in the series, and she’s still a callow rookie filled with self-doubt and misgivings about her ability to measure up. Her conflict with pathologist Dr. Lathrop is contrived and lame, and her attraction to Socorro County Sheriff Homer Watts seems intended mostly to reassure us that she, too, has a pulse.
Nora’s brother Skip, who accompanies her into the desert as part of Tappan’s team, is virtually indistinguishable from his dog, Mitty. As for Tappan, it’s so painfully obvious the authors modeled his character after Elon Musk that it was hardly necessary to point out that the car he drives is, well, yes, a Tesla.
As for the plot, it begins slowly and coasts through a lukewarm middle portion before exploding in a violent and bloody climax that seems cribbed from an old Matt Helm novel. Actually, it’s likely that Donald Hamilton would have handled this story idea rather better than Preston and Child have done.
Once readers become fans of certain bestselling authors and their various characters, publishers are confident they’ll consume whatever they release. The fact that Preston and Child continue to dominate the top of the charts each time out is proof that quality work is not necessary for success when you can rely on prolific production and careful adherence to the formula into which fans have already proven willing to invest their time and money.
It never pays to criticize readers for the stuff they choose to devour, though. After all, reading is an almost sacred activity that should be encouraged, nurtured, and congratulated.
The aforementioned Matt Helm series, for example, was not exactly high-end literature on par with Hemingway and Faulkner, but dog-eared paperback copies still sit on many of our bookshelves because they served a purpose in our lives, and we continue to retain a certain fondness for them. Love of narrative is an essential element of who we are as a species, and it must always be celebrated.
However, it’s important to point out instances in which the machine created and run by the Big Four publishing monoliths cynically rewards authors like Preston and Child over and over again for blatantly mediocre effort.
Diablo Mesa is another contrived thriller that will appeal only to Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s loyal and unquestioning fan base.