Death in the Mesozoic: Paleontology in mystery novels

Paleontologists are homicide detectives — it’s just that bodies they uncover have been dead for a very long time. The problem for writers is that investigations into 65 million-year-old crime scenes rarely make for compelling reading. If they want to grab readers’ attention, their murders need to be of the more recent variety.

According to one report, mysteries rank behind only romance as the most popular literary genre. Countless mysteries have been written with settings ranging from the modern day to ancient Rome. The genre is so extensive it basically has its own version of Rule 34: If it exists, there is a mystery novel about it. So it should come as no surprise that a handful of mysteries feature paleontology as a plot point. Rarely do we get living prehistoric animals in mysteries — that’s the realm of science fiction — but many authors aren’t shy about sprinkling a little science in their crime novels.

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A scene from “Dinosaur Fever,” a Season 2 episode of the Canadian crime drama Murdock Mysteries. Image source.

The most recent example of a “paleo-mystery” is Dry Bones (2015) by Craig Johnson. The latest installment in Johnson’s popular Longmire series, the plot heavily borrows from the real-life legal battle over the remains of Sue the T. rex. From the cover blurb:

When Jen, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found surfaces in Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction, it appears to be a windfall for the High Plains Dinosaur Museum — until Danny Lone Elk, the Cheyenne rancher on whose property the remains were discovered, turns up dead, floating face down in a turtle pond. With millions of dollars at stake, a number of groups step forward to claim her, including Danny’s family, the tribe, and the federal government. As Wyoming’s Acting Deputy Attorney and a cadre of FBI officers descend on the town, Walt is determined to find out who would benefit from Danny’s death, enlisting old friends Lucian Connolly and Omar Rhoades, along with Dog and best friend Henry Standing Bear, to trawl the vast Lone Elk ranch looking for answers to a sixty-five million year old cold case that’s heating up fast.

It should be noted that in the case of Sue, no one was murdered, although a fossil dealer did end up in prison.

Another recent paleo-mystery is The Dinosaur Feather (2008) by Sissel-Jo Gazan, which won an award for best mystery novel in the author’s home country of Denmark. The plot revolves around a paleontology student who becomes involved in a murder investigation after her academic supervisor is killed. Closer in time is Homer Hickam’s The Dinosaur Hunter (2010), about a ranch hand wrapped up in a murder plot surrounding the discovery of dinosaur fossils in eastern Montana.

Most paleo-mysteries are one-off affairs. One exception is Mesozoic Murder (2003) by Christine Gentry, which was followed by a sequel, Carnosaur Crimes (2010). Both feature Ansel Phoenix, a paleoartist who solves crimes in Montana.

Readers looking plucky heroines may want to check out Bone Hunter (1999) by Sarah Andrews. The fifth in a series of novels featuring forensic geologist Em Hansen, the protagonist finds herself the main suspect in the murder of a famous paleontologist on the eve of a Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Salt Lake City.

The famous crime novelist Patricia Cornwell dabbled in paleontology in The Bone Bed (2012), featuring her popular character Kay Scarpetta. From the description:

A woman has vanished while digging a dinosaur bone bed in the remote wilderness of Canada. Somehow, the only evidence has made its way to the inbox of Chief Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, over two thousand miles away in Boston. She has no idea why. But as events unfold with alarming speed, Scarpetta begins to suspect that the paleontologist’s disappearance is connected to a series of crimes much closer to home: a gruesome murder, inexplicable tortures, and trace evidence from the last living creatures of the dinosaur age.

Other paleo-mysteries include Dead as a Dinosaur (1952) by Frances & Richard Lockridge, Dinosaur Cat (1999) by Garrison Allen, The Last Dinosaur (1994) by Sandy Dengler, Rattle His Bones (2011) by Carola Dunn, and the young-adult novel Old Bones (2014) by Gwen Molnar.

All the novels mentioned so far feature human protagonists, but at least one series includes living dinosaurs. Anonymous Rex (1999) by Eric Garcia is set in an alternate reality where dinosaurs didn’t die out and are living among us in disguise. A parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, the book has two sequels: Casual Rex (2002) and Hot and Sweaty Rex (2005).

Know any paleo-mysteries I missed? Feel free to mention them in the comments.

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