Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
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.
It’s always interesting reading a book published posthumously. You always have to wonder how much of the book was “found” and how much was ghostwritten. Since Michael Crichton died, there have been three novels of his published posthumously: Pirate Latitudes, Micro, and now Dragon Teeth. I’ve read both Pirate Latitudes and Micro as well as Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Congo, Prey, The Andromeda Strain, Timeline, Rising Sun, and Next.
I had pretty low expectations for Dragon Teeth. I liked Pirate Latitudes, but not as much as Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Prey, and The Andromeda Strain, which are my favorite Crichton books. I did not like Micro much at all. So coming off of that, I was not expecting much. But this one proved me wrong.
I’ll admit that with the writing of my own novel, my brain has been permanently stuck in the later part of the nineteenth century. So take that as you will. But I really, really liked this one. It was a little rough around the edges, but the concept was fantastic and manages to deliver. Hunting for dinosaur bones in the Wild Wild West? Sign me up!
The story rattles along at a great clip, managing to blend the speed of a thriller with true history and scientific fact. My only criticism is that the narrative voice in this one is a little weird. The introduction purports that the narrator is someone from the future telling the story of William Johnson. Which, ok, that’s fine. It gives a little narrative distance to the story. But it also means that the narrator sometimes delivers a page of straight historical fact or does some really heavy-handed foreshadowing that feels at odds with the story. It wouldn’t be so bad if the narrative came full circle back to whomever this distant narrator is, but the narrator kind of fades out from the story. And the author’s note states that William Johnson is entirely fictitious. So the issue of the distant narrator is never satisfactorily explained.
Aside from these momentary oddities, this is a very solid novel. According to the afterward from his wife, it seems Crichton might have been working on this book as early as 1973. So possibly some of the stuff that’s rough around the edges is merely the work of a less experienced writer that didn’t get edited out because they wanted to leave the story intact as they found it? I have no idea, but I think it’s a plausible theory.
I will say though, in my opinion while Dragon Teeth does not squeeze out any of my top four Crichton novels, it’s earned itself the last spot in the top 5. It’s a fun ride from start to finish.