Grosset & Dunlap Publishers
With the Holidays fast approaching, I thought this would be an opportune time to again feature an archaeological thriller aimed at the young reader on your gift list. This is a bit of a departure from contemporary authors like Rick Riordan and James Rollins that I’ve featured previously. The Golden Skull was written nearly sixty years ago, the tenth volume in the Rick Brant Science-Adventure series, and a great favorite of mine when I was young. It was also a favorite of my sons a generation later and I would like to believe that today’s youthful readers will still find it an exciting read.
The Rick Brant series was penned by an amazing gentleman named Harold Leland Goodwin (who wrote under the pen name John Blaine) from 1947 into the late 1960s. Following his service in the Marine Corps in World War II, Mr. Goodwin worked for a variety of post-war government agencies, including the OSS (the predecessor to today’s CIA), the Atomic Energy Commission, NASA and the National Science Foundation. His assignments and experiences here and abroad, and his wide-ranging interest in and knowledge in all things scientific, informed his Rick Brant series, and a young reader back in the 1950s and 1960s could learn a great deal of factual information concerning cutting edge science of the era. Because many of the Rick Brant adventures took place in foreign lands (Tibet, New Caledonia, the Philippines, India, and Egypt to name a few)—all of which Mr. Goodwin was personally familiar—the young reader could also learn a great deal about geography and cultural anthropology.
In The Golden Skull, Rick and his sidekick Scotty join Dr. Anthony Briotti, archaeologist for the world-renowned Spindrift Scientific Foundation, which is directed by Rick’s father, on an expedition to the Mountain Province of Luzon in the Philippine Archipelago. Their goal is to unearth a cache of artifacts, including a fabled golden skull, hidden in mountainous rice terraces of central Luzon, an area now occupied by the fiercely independent Ifugao peoples. This hunt had its origins in an earlier Spindrift adventure that resulted in the discovery of the sunken temple of Alta Yuan in 600 feet of water off the shores of a small island in the western Pacific. Tony Briotti had translated stone tablets excavated in the sunken ruin and found tantalizing evidence that seemed to link the creators of the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the people of Alta Yuan and from there to the early inhabitants of the rice terrace territories of Luzon. To aid in their exploration, the trio brought with them a new device invented at the Spindrift Foundation—the Spindrift Experimental Earth Scanner (SEES for short)—which detects underground anomalies, much like the ground-penetrating radar used by contemporary archaeologists.
Trouble dogs the Spindrifters from the very outset and even before setting foot on Philippine soil, an attempt is made on Tony Briotti’s life by a shadowy figure who appears to be an indigenous native—either Igorot or Ifugao—from the rice terrace country they will be investigating. Then, almost literally within hours of checking into the stately Manila Hotel, Rick and Scotty interrupt an attempted burgling of their rooms and pursue the intruder into the dark rubble-filled maze that is the interior of the Intramuros, an ancient walled city-within-a-city in modern day Manila. The table is quickly turned and the hunters become hunted when Rick and Scotty find themselves targets of a rifleman hidden in the Intramuros darkness.
The expedition finally proceeds toward the mountainous provinces of Luzon and Ifugao country. But their progress from the Manila to Baguio to the highland town of Bontoc is hindered at every turn by a ruthless gang of thugs that obviously hope to cripple their efforts to find the golden skull. Against all odds, the Spindrift team, with the technological edge provided by the SEES, successfully unearths the cache of artifacts, only to be stymied by Ifugao warriors who have been driven to a frenzied rage by their enemies. Narrowly escaping the fury of the Ifugaos, the quest for the golden skull leads back to Manila and the shadowy mastermind behind the plot to thwart the Spindrift expedition.
The thrills pile up with each turn of the page and with it the reader will learn a great deal about Philippine geography, history and ethnography—and he or she will be drawn into Rick and Scotty’s world of high adventure. Four trowels for The Golden Skull and the entire Rick Brant Science-Adventure series!
Even though this series has been long out of print, most hardcover editions are still available from Amazon and Ebay, usually costing between $2 and $10. There is a Kindle edition from Halcyon Classics that includes the first 11 books in the series for $1.99 and many of the books are available as e-books in the public domain and are therefore free of charge.