Danger: Dinosaurs! by Evan Hunter (1953)

DangerDinos3Cover blurb

Owen Spencer would never have agreed to lead the time-slip expedition back to the Jurassic period – the Age of Reptiles – had he foreseen the terrifying experiences in store for the small group making the expedition. Chartering the expedition was Dirk Masterson, a treacherous big game hunter, whose alleged purpose was to take pictures of the enormous reptiles that roamed Jurassic times. Even when Masterson smashed the jeep into the force field, destroying the only protection that stood between the group and the lumbering beasts, Owen could not be sure it was an accident.

Evan Hunter has written a fast-moving tale of people stranded on earth in its infancy and forced to pit their ingenuity and strength against mammoth reptiles. It might not have been so bad if Masterson, with his mania for big game hunting had not continued to shoot at every reptile he spotted. But his madman tactics repeatedly aroused the fury of the hideous dinosaurs, whose attacks drove the farther and farther away from the relay area that would slip them back to the present when the week was up.

The weird circumstances that made Owen’s brother, Chuck, take over the leadership of the expedition and the even stranger adjustment of the time stream that left the party with the inexplicable feeling that somebody was missing makes DANGER: DINOSAURS! an unusual and fascinating treatment of the ever-provocative time theme. The desperate search for the relay area, interrupted by fierce fights with flesh-eating monsters, and an earthquake that creates a chaos of stampeding animals give this story action that is as alien as any distant planet.

DANGER: DINOSAURS! is a juvenile science fiction novel, published first in 1953 as one of the books in the Winston Science Fiction series. The author, Evan Hunter, had a very successful writing career. He was also prolific and used a number of pen names. As Hunter, he wrote THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, a novel dealing with juvenile crime and the New York City public school system. It and the 1955 movie based on the book were highly acclaimed. He also had a successful screenwriting career, producing scripts for movies and TV, including the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s film THE BIRDS (1963). However, he is probably best known for the crime fiction he wrote using the pen name Ed McBain. His 87th Precinct series is often credited with inventing the “police procedural” genre of crime fiction. The books were turned into a number of movies and TV series.

*Blurb and cover art from the 2014 digital edition.

My thoughts

I’ve dredged up a lot of turkeys in my hunt for obscure paleofiction over the years, so I admittedly didn’t have much hope for Danger: Dinosaurs! when I downloaded the e-book version from Amazon.com. Most science fiction novels that have been forgotten became that way for good reason. But it turned out I was in for a bit of a shock: While not a great novel, Danger: Dinosaurs! is a surprisingly good read with some well-researched dinosaur action.

The novel begins with our protagonist, Chuck Spencer, eagerly awaiting the return of his brother, Owen, a guide who leads tourists on photo safaris to the Mesozoic Era. Chuck is to accompany his brother on his next trip – a jaunt back to the Jurassic Period. The client is one Dirk Masterson, a rich blowhard who thinks his wealth gives him the authority to boss anyone around. Journeys to the Jurassic are usually dangerous affairs, but Owen is bringing with him a force field that will keep the dinosaurs out. However, once the time travelers arrive at their destination, Masterson drives a jeep into the force field, shorting it out. To make matters worse, Masterson then reveals he has smuggled in firearms so he can hunt dinosaurs, which is illegal. Chuck and Owen have no choice but to accompany Masterson, who pushes the party further and further away from the point where they need to be in a week’s time to return to future Earth.

The first thing to strike me about Danger: Dinosaurs! was how much research the author put into the book in order to make sure he got his dinosaur science right. While both earlier and later authors would mix creatures from various time periods in the same setting, Hunter’s dinosaurs are pretty much the ones you would expect to see in the Jurassic. His characters also delve into lectures about the Mesozoic that accurately reflect scientific thinking at the time the book was written. And while the dinosaurs themselves are described as dim-witted, they show reasonably complex behaviors, such as herding. Also, Hunter’s descriptions of the Jurassic environment at times border on poetic, with the author avoiding common mistakes made by other writers, like populating their settings with grass. Too bad the same can’t be said about Hunter’s take on the nature of time, which will leave readers scratching their heads once it becomes a central point in the plot. (To say anything more would spoil one of the novel’s most dramatic scenes.)

The story itself is appropriately action-packed with some scenes of real tension. That said, the characters could be better written. At times they make mistakes so easily avoided that it is obvious the author only had them behave in a certain way so he could advance the story. The villains’ motivations, once revealed, don’t make a lot of sense. Also, Hunter’s physical descriptions of a black man who accompanies the team are far from politically correct by today’s standards, although it should be noted the character in question turns out not only to be a hero, but a vehicle the author uses to critique racial attitudes of the era in which the book was written. Sadly the author’s modern views don’t extend to the novel’s sole female character, who we are told can’t handle the rigors of the prehistoric environment because she is just a “girl.”

Flaws aside, Danger: Dinosaurs! remains a fun little read that might surprise you on how well it has aged. The book is definitely worth your time if you’re a fan of paleofiction.

Trivia

  • As stated in the cover blurb, Evan Hunter actually is a famous author better known for his crime stories written under the pen name Ed McBain. He also penned the screenplay for one of the most famous man vs. dinosaur films of all time, The Birds.
  • Danger: Dinosaurs! is one of several golden age science fiction novels recently reissued by Thunderchild Publishing.
  • Hunter wrote Danger: Dinosaurs! under the pen name of Richard Marsten.

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