Although he didn’t know it at the time, Douglas Preston’s nonfiction book “Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History” (1986) plays as a collection of research notes and ideas for his later career as a novelist. That wouldn’t begin for another eight years, with “Jennie,” the seeds of which are found here in chapter 11’s recounting of Meshie Mungkut, the first example of a chimpanzee raised as a human.
In “Deep Storm” (2007), Lincoln Child dives into some of the biggest science fiction ideas of his career without letting the story become untethered. While this, his third solo novel, ultimately hews closely enough to James Cameron’s film masterpiece “The Abyss” (1989) that I can’t say it’s entirely original, Child’s structure is masterful. He builds mysteries atop one another from the first page to the last, and each one plants a fresh hook.
From my first read, I remembered “Death Match” (2004) as being too similar to other works — dating back to the HAL-9000 portion of “2001” – and featuring one of those stereotypical Big Final Acts. But I got more out of Lincoln Child’s computer-tech thriller – his sophomore follow-up to “Utopia” – on this read. While the novel fits in the grand tradition of cautionary tales about artificial intelligence, it offers a tantalizingly fresh idea at its core: What if a computer program could find your ideal romantic partner?
After six novels co-written with Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child goes solo for “Utopia” (2002), which I remembered as setting a high bar for all his future works (a bar he sometimes passes). Set in a cutting-edge theme park, it’s thematically on par with Michael Crichton’s movie “Westworld” (robots who can learn) and book “Jurassic Park” (the unforeseen problems of newly implemented technology).
We think of Douglas Preston as a best-selling thriller novelist, but his roots are in journalism, and he is still a practicing journalist. His earliest 1980s-’90s books are nonfiction explorations of the American Museum of Natural History, the desert Southwest and paleontology. More recently he chronicled his team’s discovery of an ancient Central American city in 2017’s “The Lost City of the Monkey God.” In between came “The Monster of Florence” (2008), in which he and co-writer Mario Spezi – Italian newspapers’ leading expert on the titular killer – get far more involved in the story than they would’ve liked.
Douglas Preston’s “Blaspehmy” (2008) has such a good premise that it hooked me twice. I remembered from my first read that scientists with a particle collider buried in the Arizona desert stumble upon God – or what they think is God – as they run their experiments. I didn’t remember how it turned out, so I got pulled in again on this re-read. Unfortunately, “Blasphemy” is also one of Preston’s weaker overall novels because everything except the God discovery is overblown and less enjoyable.
Novels where dinosaurs roam present-day Earth were left to the late, great Michael Crichton, and that’s as it should be, but Douglas Preston crafts an outstanding book with a T-rex as the absent center: “Tyrannosaur Canyon” (2005). Italicized segments evocatively describe the way the T-rex operated like a machine, with a brain nearly the size of a human’s but entirely devoted to killing and consuming meat; no long-term memory distracts her.
Before Douglas Preston set foot in the fabled White City of Honduras, as chronicled in 2017’s “Lost City of the Monkey God,” he imagined going there in “The Codex” (2003). While it’s mildly disappointing, given the title, that the book doesn’t chronicle a code-breaking mystery, it is an adventurous trek through the jungles, rivers and mountains of Honduras. You’ll be happy to visit it in book form rather than going there yourself, as Preston paints an evocative picture of the land – and its corrupt politicians and differently cultured natives – serving up one death-trap after another.
Douglas Preston starts his fiction-writing career with a novel that’s almost unrecognizably his own, when viewed from the lens of a quarter-century of imaginative sci-fi collaborations with Lincoln Child. “Jennie” (1994) is unlike anything else on his resume. It’s deeply researched and concerned with hard scientific facts and discoveries – similar to his nonfiction works in that way – yet it is a work of fiction written in an unusual but effective style. Preston is the off-page “interviewer” and “researcher,” but we get the story of the titular chimpanzee raised as a human straight from the interviewees’ responses, journals and lab notes.
Past and present collide as Agent Pendergast and Constance hit the high seas in a nod to the 1912 Titanic tragedy in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s “The Wheel of Darkness” (2007). In their eighth Pendergast novel, the authors hint at future scientific discoveries by looking into ancient Buddhist mysticism, going right up to the line between science fiction and supernatural fantasy (it’s up to the reader to decide if they cross it). The concept of people being possessed by an ancient drawing is admittedly not something you find in every novel, but it’s also kind of silly – and yet it is entertaining to see Pendergast’s personality change. “Wheel” is not the authors’ A-game, but it does provide plenty of talking points.