By Douglas Preston
Forge. 365 pp. $24.95
Douglas Preston's grandly entertaining new novel opens on the moon, in December 1972, after the Apollo 17 mission has landed. Two astronauts are gathering soil and rock samples. One notices "a curious-looking rock about ten inches long, shaped like a tablet." They bag it as Lunar Sample 480 and take it back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. For reasons that are not made clear to us, the rock and all references to it soon vanish. Thus ends the novel's brief, rather unsettling prologue, with its echoes of "2001: A Space Odyssey," and we proceed to the main body of the story, which takes place in the present amid the mesas, canyons and badlands of northern New Mexico.
A grizzled prospector is plodding through this forbidding but glorious territory: "Thousand-foot canyon walls of aeolian sandstone soared above him, the majestic Entrada Formation, the compacted remains of a Jurassic desert." The old fellow has made an unexplained discovery that he thinks will change his life. Then a man with a rifle appears a thousand feet above him, on the rim of the canyon. Shots ring out, and the old man falls, mortally wounded. Before the killer can descend to his victim, Tom Broadbent happens by on horseback. Broadbent, who has appeared in previous Preston novels, lives on a nearby ranch with his gorgeous wife, Sally, and works as a vet. The wounded man gives Broadbent a notebook filled with code and dies. Broadbent, realizing the killer is nearby, rides away. The killer arrives, can't find the notebook and sets out to find the man who took it.
We learn that what the prospector had found was the fossilized remains of our old friend T. rex -- Tyrannosaurus rex, the baddest creature who ever walked this Earth, at least until we came along. Not just his bones, you understand, but an entire beast, preserved, which would be worth a cool hundred million on the open market. A crooked scholar at a New York museum -- suave and nasty as only educated Brits can be -- got wind of the find and sent a psychopathic ex-con to kill the prospector and steal the notebook that gives his find's location. A number of predictable events follow. Broadbent won't go to the police because he promised the dying man he'd give the notebook to his daughter. The ex-con kidnaps Broadbent's sexy wife, with lust in his heart. An extended chase scene begins in a pitch-black mineshaft and ends in the burning desert.
Two-thirds of the way along, we learn the meaning of that moon rock that we'd almost forgotten. Good golly, folks, we aren't dealing just with who digs up T. rex, we're also dealing with the fate of humankind and whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. Finally, not at all surprising, the most lethal, amoral villain in the book is not the ex-con but a fellow who runs a secret government agency that, in the name of national security, eliminates citizens who learn too much about moon rocks. ("Another regrettable but necessary discontinuance," he calls one such death.)
If some of these events seem familiar, Preston's storytelling redeems them. The story is beautifully plotted and paced, and stylishly told. Unexpected characters emerge. A nicely sketched ex-CIA man turned monk joins forces with Broadbent. In New York, a lonely, underpaid scientific researcher makes discoveries about T. rex that will make her either famous or dead. Even the homicidal ex-con has an interesting side: He operates a highly profitable Internet dating service that brings together prison inmates and women who want to meet or marry them. But Preston's most intriguing character is the T. rex itself, whose intense if somewhat limited point of view he presents in a series of flashbacks to the days, 65 million years ago, just before an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs:
"She had no long-term memory. Memory was for the weak. There were no predators she had to recognize, no dangers to avoid, nothing that had to be learned. Instinct took care of her needs, which were simple. She needed meat. Lots of it. . . . She experienced life as it happened, a single stream of sensation and reaction that lost its past like a river losing itself in the ocean.
Later, one of Preston's characters declares: "Without the complete and total extinction of the dinosaurs, mammals would never have evolved into anything larger than a rat and human beings would never have existed." Proving once again that it's an ill asteroid that blows no good.
Preston, who once worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has published six previous novels of his own and 10 more in collaboration with Lincoln Child, who has himself written several solo novels. The two of them, along with Peter Abrahams, Robert Littell, Denise Mina, Mo Hayder and others, write fanciful, sophisticated books that are sometimes called literary thrillers, although that term isn't really apt. Their books aren't literary in the usual sense of the word, but they are reliably literate and entertaining. Much that happens in "Tyrannosaur Canyon" is improbable, but it is always intelligently told and never less than fun. Call it high-quality escapism, in a world that offers much to escape from.