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State’s complex history plays a colorful role in thriller

"The Scorpion's Tail" has been ranked as high as No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller lists for Hardcover Fiction and for Combined Print and E-Book Fiction, co-author Douglas Preston said.

“The Scorpion’s Tail” has been ranked as high as No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller lists for Hardcover Fiction and for Combined Print and E-Book Fiction, co-author Douglas Preston said.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child know how to write thrillers in tandem. Many have been bestsellers. They’re back with their latest propulsive thriller “The Scorpion’s Tail: A Nora Kelly Novel.”

It is set in the present in various locales in New Mexico, though the center of the action is in the fictional ghost town of High Lonesome. A desiccated corpse is found in the cellar of an abandoned building in the dust-encased town.

The reader is introduced to the dead man when the sheriff arrests a local relic hunter just as he’s pulling out the cranium and part of the right forearm. The town is on Bureau of Land Management land east of Socorro. The dead man, probably a gold prospector, is identified as James Gower. His face and body show that he died in agony. But why? Was he murdered?

Albuquerque FBI Special Agent Corrie Swanson is assigned the case. Swanson enlists the help of Santa Fe archaeologist Nora Kelly to properly excavate the long-dead remains of the man found with a dead pack animal in a nearby corral. Their probe leads Kelly to wonder out-loud: “The fetal position of the corpse is very strange, as if he were poisoned or maybe freezing to death. Or, perhaps, hallucinating … .”

When they move the body, they find a heavy object about the size of a hand, wrapped in leather. Opening it, they’re astounded to see a heavy, worn gold cross encrusted with gems. Further analysis shows the New World-made object may pre-date the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Gower probably died about 1945, the year of the atom bomb test at the Trinity Site on what is today the White Sands Missile Range. High Lonesome is just north of the missile range and the Jornada del Muerto. The story digs, literally, figuratively and excitedly, into the state’s history, legends and landscapes.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Preston said the idea for the novel germinated 25 years ago when he did a story for New Mexico Magazine on the 50th anniversary of the Trinity test.

“The missile range commander accompanied me. It was interesting to see the range from an area no one sees, not just from the Trinity Site but the whole sweep of the land …” Preston said in a phone interview. “Also how pristine the landscape was. It looked like Africa because the land had returned largely to when it was before there was cattle, sheep and horses. I thought it would be a wonderful entrance for a story. And I got to see Victorio Peak and heard the legend of the treasure.”

These remembrances have been percolating in his head since then. So he talked with Child about using kernels of those recollections for a novel. “The journey from an idea to a plot is very complex and difficult. A lot of people who aren’t authors don’t realize that,” Preston added.

The journey of this thriller takes the reader through an array of characters who artfully slip in and out of the narrative, from the trespassing relic hunter digging up human bones … to a young quick-draw sheriff …to an army general illegally searching for treasure …to a relative of Gower’s living near Magdalena … to a reclusive Mescalero Apache, who could shed light on the last days of Gower, his long-ago partner. If he’s still alive.

This is a thriller with as many delicious plot and subplot turns as the road to the remote High Lonesome. When eventually revealed, the cause of Gower’s death may astonish readers. It astonished me.

“I’m very fond of this story. I put my love of the knowledge of the landscapes, the people and the history into it,” said Preston, who lives part of the year in Santa Fe.

“The Scorpion’s Tail” has been ranked as high as No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller lists for Hardcover Fiction and for Combined Print and E-Book Fiction, Preston said.

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