The man’s demise was clearly written in his expression: the mouth open as if screaming, protruding tongue brown and mottled as a dried morel, desiccated lips drawn back from brown teeth in a rictus of pain and horror. – The Scorpion’s Tail
Note: This book is the second in a spinoff series connected to the 20+ volume Agent Pendergast novels. No knowledge of either series is needed to enjoy this but the main characters featured in The Scorpion’s Tail, archeologist Nora Kelly, and Special Agent Corrie Swanson, are long-time regulars in that series of books. Nora was introduced in 1999’s Thunderhead, and Corrie was introduced as a teen in 2003’s A Still Life with Crows. Incidentally, both of those novels are superior to A Scorpion’s Tail. I have nearly read every book Preston & Child have written together and separately. Their best book remains their first: 1995’s Relic.
The Scorpion’s Tail is set a few months after the events of Old Bones. Corrie Swanson is now an FBI Special Agent stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After a shooting goes wrong, she is given a drudge assignment (she thinks) to investigate a mummified corpse that has been found in a secluded clifftop ghost town called High Lonesome. Corrie calls in a favor to archeologist Nora Kelly to exhume the body and help determine the cause of death. As the mystery of the dead man deepens it awakens rumors of a fabulous treasure of Spanish missionary gold. As the body count rises, Corrie and Nora realize the legend of the gold may be true after all and someone will stop at nothing to find it.
The Scorpion’s Tail is a bit of a step down from Old Bones, but still an enjoyable thriller. It has the hallmark adventure plot mixed with archeology and history that Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are known for. Also, it is farfetched, at times very silly, but moves quickly. The Scorpion’s Tail is the twenty-third book in the Pendergast universe, and that does not include the Gideon Crew novels which are tangentially connected as well. I have read nearly every book by the duo and their solo outings as well. Against the catalog, The Scorpion’s Tail lands in the middle. It retreads some old ground (namely Thunderhead), and with-it Preston & Child’s love of western history and Native American legends.
There is nothing wrong with The Scorpion’s Tail, nor is nothing particularly memorable either. Nora and Corrie have both been in far worst situations than where this story puts them. Yet rarely do either of them reference the horrific events they have experienced together, and separately. Other than a couple of references, these characters are untethered from their convoluted past.
The story itself is solid but the final revelation is a letdown. Preston & Child already wrote a couple of treasure hunt novels, specifically the spectacular Riptide, and the treasure in The Scorpion’s Tail is little more than a McGuffin. Some supporting characters add some variety and break up the investigative portions of the novel, but this is mostly the Corrie and Nora show all the way. Nora is as smart and resourceful as ever. Corrie is lucky, impetuous, and makes confounding choices that have been a character hallmark for years now. That is pretty much all we get for character development. Some side plots are introduced and quickly discarded but I suspect they were not forgotten about so much as they were introduced to bring back into the series in a future installment.
I don’t know how long the Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson spin-offs are going to last but I am enjoying them. I would like to see Preston & Child continue this trend and spin-off more characters. Poor Dr. Margo Green has been completely left out of the Pendergast-focused shenanigans since Blue Labyrinth. The series is getting so sprawling that after the Pendergast Florida trilogy (as I am calling it) wraps up I would like to see another major event on the level of the Dance of Death and Book of the Dead with a major villain arriving and wreaking havoc on everyone as Diogenes did.
Until the Infinity War of Pendergast novels arrives, the Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson series and their focus on western U.S. history is a fun tangent to take. If you are a fan of the series and unable to stop reading as I am even as the quality has diminished, you will be happy to know The Scorpion’s Tail ranks in the upper half of Preston & Child’s collection. Not as good as Old Bones, but better than a few recent Pendergast outings.