Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Scorpion's Tail: Dialogue between authors Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child: A Dialogue

Lincoln: Let’s get started. The Scorpion’s Tail is the second novel in the Nora Kelly series

Doug: The Nora Kelly and Corrie Swanson series, you mean. 

L: Look, Doug, I realize you have a soft spot for Corrie, but this series is officially called the— 

D: Are you saying Corrie isn’t as important to the book as Nora? 

L: No, but the point is— 

D: Corrie is the one who first investigates that corpse with a face of agony found buried in New Mexico. Nora only comes in later. And where did this “officially” come from? It ain’t “official” to me… 

L: Okay, okay. Slow your roll. 

 D: And it was my idea to add the, ah, bizarre nature of the poor victim’s death. 

L: Here, you can have all your Legos back. If we go on like this, we’ll give away all the surprises. Well…maybe not all the surprises, because this novel has more than its share. 

D: All right, but don’t shortchange Corrie. She’s got a temper. 

L: Not as wicked as Constance’s. 

D: Hopefully those two will never meet. Anyway, what I find interesting is that both Corrie and Nora played vital roles in many of Pendergast’s cases, but they never met each other—until now. 

L: They first met in Old Bones. That was our first novel in the series, about the archaeological excavation of one of the infamous Donner Party camps, where Nora discovers something even worse than the cannibalism history tells us of. The Scorpion’s Tail is the second novel in the series. 

D: That Donner Party story was pretty crazy. A truly sick and twisted idea, in fact. 

L: It was your idea, pardner. 

D: Thank you. 

L: People ask how Nora and Corrie managed to get together for this series. Nora Kelly is an archaeologist who first appeared in Thunderhead, and then she went on to play a crucial role in The Cabinet of Curiosities and a number of other Pendergast cases. She now works at the Santa Fe Institute of Archaeology and directs excavations of ancient sites in the area. Corrie Swanson helped Pendergast when she was a teenager in the Still Life With Crows case. Under his mentorship, she’s now a rookie FBI agent, fresh out of the Academy and a little uncertain of herself. Corrie’s expertise is in forensic anthropology—that is, looking at bones and figuring out who they were, how old they were, what they looked like, and how they died. Basically, Nora digs the bodies up and Corrie figures out what happened to them. Together, the two women become a kind of investigative brain trust. 

D: One wields an archaeologist’s brush—the other a gun. L. It’s such a perfect matchup I’m surprised I didn’t suggest it before. 

D: You suggested it? 

L: Don’t I suggest all the good ideas around here? But let us not dwell on such trivialities and talk about the book itself—avoiding spoilers, of course. 

D: Okay. Well, the story opens in a remote ghost town called High Lonesome at the northern edge of the Jornada del Muerto Desert of New Mexico. This is one of the harshest deserts in the country, a place so remote it was chosen as the test site for the first atomic bomb detonation in 1945. The local sheriff of Socorro County, Homer Watts, surprises a looter up at High Lonesome, who’s found a mummified body in a ruined cellar. There’s a shootout and the looter gets a bullet in the knee, while poor Homer gets his ear shot off. Because the desiccated body is found on Federal land, the FBI gets involved and Corrie is assigned to the case to determine if it was a homicide or accident. She brings in Nora to dig the body up. What they find is…grotesque, unspeakable, and at the same time oddly wonderful. 

L: I think you better stop there before we get into spoiler territory. 

D: I’ll shut up, except to say that everything they assume about the body turns out to be wrong. I’ll close by mentioning this is a case where Nora unearths, instead of an ancient curse or forgotten disaster, something connected in a horrific way to the modern world, something so shocking that…well, the story’s like one of those French cakes with dozens of layers. 

L: Gâteau Mille Crêpes? 

D: Exactly. Every time I try to cut out a slice to share with our readers, I find myself about to reveal two, three, or even more hidden layers. 

L: We can talk about the setting, at least, without fear of spoilers. And you’re the perfect person to do so, since you know that country. 

D: Thanks, my good man. One of the things I love about this series is its grounding in the New Mexico. We have Nora, working at the Santa Fe Institute of Archaeology, and Corrie working out of the FBI’s Albuquerque Field Office. New Mexico has a lot of history, legends, and mysteries to work with. 

L: Such as? 

D: I’m thinking in particular of stories of buried treasure. 

L: You’ve been obsessed with that subject ever since you first read Robert Louis Stevenson. Speaking of your youth, didn’t you once travel all over New Mexico on horseback? 

D: Yes. In fact, in 1995 I crossed the Jornada del Muerto on horseback with my pal Walter Nelson, 120 miles of some of the toughest country you can imagine. The very name says it all, Jornada del Muerto means “Journey of the Dead.” It was called that because the old Spanish trail from Mexico City to Santa Fe crossed this desert, and the route was literally lined with the bones of horses and livestock and hundreds of crude graves. The high desert, with its slot canyons and arroyos and mesas, is in some ways a labyrinth. When you’re far from civilization for weeks at a time, traveling on horseback and not following trails or roads, you have a good chance of stumbling on things that are strange and often unique. For example, on that ride we encountered a secret military installation. It was used for—well, I’d better not say what for—but it plays a role in the book’s climax. 

L: Hold on. I thought you made that up for the book. 

D: I know you did. Don’t worry, I changed the location and details, and besides that was twenty-five years ago… 

L: Please, I’d rather not know any more. The main point here is that you’re uniquely familiar with the remote areas in which The Scorpion’s Tail takes place. Isn’t it true that among other things you’ve stumbled upon untouched ancient Pueblo ruins, perfectly preserved, that nobody else has seen in hundreds of years? 

D: It is true. And I won’t say where they are, either, because they should be respected—in other words, left alone. 

L: And didn’t you say that, while researching non-fiction articles for Smithsonian and The New Yorker, you stumbled upon a cornucopia of legends and stories of the old West…and the new West…that have a surprising amount of truth to them? 

D: Yes. The Scorpion’s Tail makes good use of some of those legends and stories, such as the absolutely true story of the treasure of— 

L: Whoa there, Doug. 

D: Oops, spoilers again. 

L: We’ve said about as much as we can say, so if you’re interested, Doug would love you to buy the book so he can keep up the payments on his Rolls-Royce. 

D: Yeah, right. And Linc wants you to buy the book so he can continue to bet on the horses, drink martinis, and buy Bitcoins to hide under his mattress. 


Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have published over thirty books together, most of which have been New York Times bestsellers, some reaching the #1 position. Their most recent novel, The Scorpion’s Tail, was published on January 12, 2021.

1 comment:

Lengnick Marcia said...

I have read both books in your Nora K/Corrie W.series..but The Scorpions Tail was a personal delight because of its setting. We usually drive to Green Valley, AZ at this time of year..Thanks to Covid our trip has been cancelled this year. At 83 and 86 we are staying close to home, but I digress...We have a favorite Mexican restaurant in Alamagordo which we try to hit at lunch time..sorry forget the name..but when heading West, you turn left off the main street..and then, of course, White Silver Sands...majestic..Our white standard poodle’s blue leash and the blue sky were the only hints of color for miles...Thanks for the memories and another outstanding book.
Marcia Lengnick
Adrian, Mi