Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton (2017)

DragonTeethCover blurb

Michael Crichton, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Jurassic Park, returns to the world of paleontology in this recently discovered novel—a thrilling adventure set in the Wild West during the golden age of fossil hunting.

The year is 1876. Warring Indian tribes still populate America’s western territories even as lawless gold-rush towns begin to mark the landscape. In much of the country it is still illegal to espouse evolution. Against this backdrop two monomaniacal paleontologists pillage the Wild West, hunting for dinosaur fossils, while surveilling, deceiving and sabotaging each other in a rivalry that will come to be known as the Bone Wars.

Into this treacherous territory plunges the arrogant and entitled William Johnson, a Yale student with more privilege than sense. Determined to survive a summer in the west to win a bet against his arch-rival, William has joined world-renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh on his latest expedition. But when the paranoid and secretive Marsh becomes convinced that William is spying for his nemesis, Edwin Drinker Cope, he abandons him in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a locus of crime and vice. William is forced to join forces with Cope and soon stumbles upon a discovery of historic proportions. With this extraordinary treasure, however, comes exceptional danger, and William’s newfound resilience will be tested in his struggle to protect his cache, which pits him against some of the West’s most notorious characters.

A page-turner that draws on both meticulously researched history and an exuberant imagination, Dragon Teeth is based on the rivalry between real-life paleontologists Cope and Marsh; in William Johnson readers will find an inspiring hero only Michael Crichton could have imagined. Perfectly paced and brilliantly plotted, this enormously winning adventure is destined to become another Crichton classic.

My thoughts

Michael Crichton died in 2008 but still managed to produce a new work of fiction nearly a decade later. Dragon Teeth is a posthumously published novel released with great fanfare in 2017. Some critics called the book a cross between Jurassic Park and Westworld—two of the author’s best-known works. The truth is the novel doesn’t live up to either, but it’s still an enjoyable window into an interesting but largely overlooked part of U.S. history.

Dragon Teeth is the story of William Johnson, a spoiled rich kid who accompanies a paleontology expedition to the American Wild West to settle a bet. The year is 1876 and the legendary “Bone Wars” are at their height. Paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope are both seeking fame by discovering new fossils, and neither scientist is above using subterfuge to get what he wants. Thanks to treachery and bad luck, Johnson finds himself alone and stranded in Montana with several crates of dinosaur fossils. The young man is determined to get his cargo to its destination, even if hostile Native Americans and ruthless gunslingers are blocking the way.

Dragon Teeth may have a T. rex skull on the cover but make no mistake: No living dinosaurs are found in its pages. If you are looking for The Valley of Gwangi, look elsewhere. The novel is an old-fashioned Western adventure novel with paleontology serving as a backdrop. Crichton apparently didn’t think much of the book given he never sought to publish it while still alive (as far as we know). The author’s widow allegedly discovered the manuscript while sorting through his old papers. I’m sure an editor attempted to patch up the writing, but the finished product still feels like a rough draft. Many of Crichton’s narrative hallmarks are there, such as the heavy use of foreshadowing and large infodumps. However, the characters are underdeveloped and the plot lacks any real focus, with the main character mostly just blundering from one misadventure to the next. Crichton never was a great writer, but at his best he was a great storyteller, knowing how to build suspense and tight, logically consistent plots. Neither skill is on display here.

That said, Dragon Teeth is still fun as Johnson’s journey essentially serves as a travelogue to a unique period in history. In roughly 300 pages readers will learn about the birth of American paleontology, the Indian Wars, the lawless town of Deadwood, and even early photography. At times, the novel comes across as more edutainment than entertainment, so your mileage will vary depending on your interest in the subjects explored. Still, the book’s short length means the narrative never dwells unreasonably long on any particular topic. The brevity also keeps the action from sputtering to a standstill, although it comes close during the second half.

Dragon Teeth won’t be remembered as one of Crichton’s better works, but it’s not a waste of time, either. The novel is an entertaining way to explore history without turning to an actual history book. Give it a try if you are interested in the Old West and the paleontologists who braved its dangers to expand our knowledge of the ancient world.

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