Preston & Child flashback: ‘Riptide’ (1998) (Book review)

R

iptide” (1998) is one of the few Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child books to not feature characters who appear elsewhere, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. Featuring coastal Maine (where Preston makes his home for part of the year), “Riptide” is an early P&C blend of medical mystery, geographical oddities, history lesson, codebreaking and treasure hunt.

But the things I like most are that P&C tell the personal story of medical doctor Malin Hatch and evocatively portray small-town life in the backwoods. Hatch hasn’t been able to bring himself to sell his Stormhaven home, instead leaving it sitting unused for two decades. His older brother died on a fateful, parent-unapproved trip out to Ragged Island when Malin was a kid in the 1970s, and the family fractured soon after.

The authors give us nice details such as the 30 English mysteries Malin’s mother kept in the house – just enough so that when she got to the last one, she’d forgotten the first one and could start over. “Riptide” is palpable with nostalgia for those bygone days you can’t quite get a grip on; Malin’s first love, Claire, is also in town, among the many distractions he’s juggling in his mind.

Stormhaven’s annual lobster feed is a great setting for introducing key players while also building a sense of foreboding. Even Hatch’s beloved high school science teacher is wary of the Ragged Island dig that Hatch – the owner of the “cursed” island — has reluctantly signed off on.

“Riptide” is like “Jurassic Park” in how it pits present versus past, and technology versus nature.

Colorful characters make up the treasure-hunt team. Captain Neidelman is out to prove that modern technology can overcome the 17th century booby traps set by pirate Red Ned Ockham’s clever indentured architect, who aimed to trap Red Ned himself. The bloodthirsty pirate mysteriously died before trying to reclaim his treasure, but the traps remain, including the harrowing Water Pit at the island’s center.

We kind of root for Neidelman and his team to conquer history, but also have fun seeing the architect – who used the island’s natural geography in structuring the tunnels and shafts — strike from beyond the grave. It’s like “Jurassic Park” in how it pits present versus past, and technology versus nature.

Speaking of Crichton’s novel, the messy but brilliant Wopner is a Dennis Nedry type. He wolfs down ice cream sandwiches even as he sets up the island’s computer network, tries to crack the code used in the architect’s journal, and complains about his job.

Isobel Bonterre is another fun one, a sexy French archaeologist whose flirting skills Malin is no match for. She might be a wish-fulfillment figure for readers who will relate to Malin, but she definitely spices up the pages.

The Rev. Clay is more predictable, but he serves the story well. The devout Clay believes no good will come to Stormhaven – or to the souls of its residents – from the temporarily lucrative treasure hunt. P&C’s books have a fair mix of admirable and not-admirable religious figures, and Clay is at least someone who backs up his beliefs.

Compared to the build-up chapters, I’m not as enthusiastic about the closing chapters after the battle lines have been drawn and we get gigantic storm waves, flying bullets and sprung traps — although it’s always kind of fun when P&C get insanely descriptive in detailing something like a treasure room.

“Riptide” gets big at the end, but it’s at its best before that, when it’s small and wistful, and we remember the family home of our youth.

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