Thunderhead and The Fictional World of Archives

Original Novel Title: Thunderhead

Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Publisher: New York, NY: Warner Books, 1999.

Quotations are from the hardcover edition:

Nora Kelly, archaeologist daughter of an archaeologist, works at the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute, New Mexico, as an assistant professor. Devoted "almost exclusively to research, excavation, and preservation," the Institute's grounds contained a

nondescript building whose small wooden sign read simply RECORDS.
Nora showed her badge to the guard, signed in, and went down the hall to a low doorway, stopping at the cement steps that led down into the gloom. Down to the Map Vault. ...
The Institute's collections contained innumerable priceless artifacts. Yet nothing on campus, or in its extensive collections, was a valuable, or as guarded, as the contents of the Map Vault. Although the vault contained no treasure, it housed something far more valuable: the location of every known archaeological site in the Southwest. ... all carefully marked on the Institute's U.S.G.S. topographical map collection. ... Each site number corresponded to an entry in the Institute's secure database, containing everything from detailed inventories to surveys to digitized sketches and letters--electronic treasure maps leading to millions of dollars worth of prehistoric artifacts. (p. 11-12)

The Institute's archivist is atypical: a rugged, compact appearance that belied his prep school and Brown University background. In an interesting use of corporate property, Institute staff members are not allowed access to the maps unless they produce a valid project number that is cross-checked on computer by archivist Owen Smalls.

Nora watched as he stepped into the vault. Inside, bathed in pitiless fluorescent light, lay two rows of metal safes, locked doors across their tops. Smalls approached one, punched in a code, and lifted its door. Hanging within the safe were countless maps, sandwiched in layers of protective plastic.

Map archives generally store maps flat, not on hangers. The maps themselves were not encapsulated so Nora was presented with gloves. One wonders, given the extensive automation evident at the Institute, why the maps themselves are not accessible through a Geographic Information System.

While examining one of the maps she compares the topology with the last letter written by her lost father who had disappeared 16 years earlier. The letter, coveted by two mysterious attackers who resemble wolves, reveals that her father thinks he found Quivira, the lost city of gold of Spanish explorer Coronado.

Using the letter and other archival documents as evidence, Nora is able to convince the Institute's chairman Ernest Goddard to back her expedition to search for Quivira. The letter surfaces from time to time as a reminder of how powerful the written word is. Though the novel lags in places, overall Preston and Child have produced another suspenseful tale of greed, depredation and murder among the ruins.

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CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Submitted by David Mattison, 1999.10.28. Updated 1999.10.28.