I've been hoping all year for a true-crime page-turner that would fit on a shelf with "In Cold Blood," "The Good Nurse," "Killers of the Flower Moon," "Black Klansman," "Say Nothing" and "The Devil in the White City."
Honestly, I'm always looking for that book.
It didn't materialize, although "Trailed" and "We Were Once a Family" are strong contenders. Now, at the end of the year, comes Douglas Preston's "The Lost Tomb," a collection of previously published magazine stories that's actually a dozen dandy true crimes, collected in one book.
Preston is a novelist and nonfiction writer whose "The Monster of Florence," about an unsolved series of murders in Italy, is a near-classic. The Atlantic magazine story that grew into "Monster" is included in "Lost Tomb." And even if you've read the book, it's fascinating to read Preston's earlier work on slayings he became so intimately involved with that he was detained as an accessory.
"I hate unsolved crimes," a source tells Preston in "The Skeletons at the Lake," about a bunch of bones discovered in the Himalayas. But Preston loves unsolved crimes. It's a measure of his skill as a writer that many of these 13 stories don't have neat solutions but are still satisfying to read.
Preston isn't a one-murder pony, either. About half of the stories deal with paleontology and archaeology, including two fascinating pieces that argue that we may be wrong about which humans settled America first and that archaeologists have muddied the waters by pulling fast ones with evidence.
Although the topic isn't the focus of any of the pieces, Preston writes sensitively about the touchy issue of whom ancient bones belong to: the scientists whose study of them could change how we see the world? Or the culture from whom they were often swiped? He also asks and tries to answer big questions, such as why millions of people were so passionately invested in the idea that now-exonerated Amanda Knox killed her roommate while studying in Italy in 2007.
Not all of the puzzlers in "The Lost Tomb" are so heady. Maybe the best is the charming "The Mystery of Oak Island," which deals with a search for buried treasure that has obsessed Preston (and thousands of others) for nearly six decades, since he was a kid. The story is a corker and it concludes with something Preston has a real gift for: an ending that is surprising, ironic and expertly judged.
The Lost Tomb
By: Douglas Preston.
Publisher: Grand Central, 295 pages, $30.
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