Most people familiar with books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are going to know the series based on the shenanigans of Agent Pendergast, or maybe even that of the lesser-known Gideon Crew. Riptide, however, is one of the handful of jointly-authored books by Preston and Child that stands alone.
And frankly it’s… fine. Not spectacular, not terrible just fine. The plot is loosely inspired by the Oak Island Money Pit–itself currently the subject of a History Channel reality show (because the world needed more reality shows). We meet Malin Hatch, a child exploring his family’s property, “Ragged Island,” with his brother John as they search for the legendary lost treasure of some pirate or other. When John is killed by a trap on the island, Malin and his family move away in grief. Years later he is a successful doctor when he is approached by Captain Needleman, who has discovered the journal of the architect who designed the traps on Ragged Island. Needleman wants to find the treasure and has the budget and the equipment to do so. [Spoiler alert from here on]
Right away things begin to go wrong. Not only are there numerous technical and mechanical errors that beset the crew, but the town preacher takes it in mind to oppose the dig and organizes a protest. Combined with Needleman’s growing obsession with finding the treasure, the expedition seems doomed to fail. The big reveal (I told you there would be spoilers), is that the centerpiece of the treasure–St. Michael’s Sword– is highly radioactive. So much so that it disrupts the electronics of the dig and makes the workers sick. When Needleman removes the sword from its case, he receives a lethal dose of radiation and endangers the remaining crew members by refusing to believe it is radioactive and failing to take appropriate safety measures (that’s a massive oversimplification, but this is a short review). The remaining crew is saved only when the local preacher intervenes and returns the sword to its watery pit, poisoning himself in the process.And, well, again that’s a huge gloss of a long book. Just leave it that Needleman is the bad guy, Hatch is the good guy, and the preacher transitions from one to the other. As is often the case in Preston & Child books (at least the ones I’ve read), the supernatural ultimately has a natural explanation, while at the same time ominous portents and dire warnings from religious figures turn out all to be true. What’s more, in Riptide specifically (and this is not out of line with their other novels) the preacher who talks sacrifice, love for community, and dedication sacrifices himself while the wealthy technocrat reveals himself to be nothing more than a greedy fortune hunter obsessed with his goal regardless of who suffers along the way.
Again, this book is fine.Which I suspect is a result of Preston and Child both being solid authors. It might run a bit long, and in the hands of less skilled authors it would have been a slog, but it was an interesting enough story. The big weakness here is not so much anything in Riptide itself as it was the constant comparison with Preston and Child’s other books. Malin Hatch is simply boring when compared to Agent Pendergast. As a result, the kind of creative and haunting setting that works so well in a book like Relic (reviewed here) simply seems grotesque or even gaudy in Riptide. Where the museum in Relic becomes a place for Pendergast to flourish as an interesting character, the contrast between the Water Pit in Riptide and Malin Hatch’s ordinary-ness is jarring enough to through off the flow of the book and undermine its potential. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t read Riptide, just that you shouldn’t expect it to be up to the same standards as the other books by these authors.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO