In 2017, HarperCollins published a Michael Crichton novel with a dinosaur skull on the cover. The bad news is it’s not the unearthing of the late author’s third “Jurassic Park” novel. The good news is “Dragon Teeth” is pretty good. It was written in 1974, and apparently Crichton – who died in 2008 – didn’t feel it was suitable for publication, but with all due respect, I disagree.
This is one of Crichton’s stronger character pieces as we follow fictional Yale student William Johnson, who travels west in 1876 to dig up dinosaur bones in an expedition led by Professor Othniel Charles Marsh. Johnson starts off as a spoiled rich kid, but he can’t refuse a bet from his rival that he won’t join the expedition, so off he goes.
By the end of “Dragon Teeth,” Johnson has been arrested for the murder of himself. He has been physically hardened to the point that the authorities don’t believe he is a soft Ivy League student, and they assume he murdered the real Johnson.
Although serious threats strike every few pages, and although the dangers are based on real history of the U.S. military’s campaign to claim more of the Sioux’s Black Hills territory, Johnson’s journey is often amusing in an “I’m glad that was before my time” sort of way. Readers will recognize real people such as Wyatt Earp, but the main historical figures – and the primary sources of amusement – are Professors Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, rivals in the early days of fossil hunting.
These two hate each others’ guts, and the author illustrates their rivalry – Cope being a better hunter; Marsh being a better scientist and publisher of findings, but also a bone thief – by having audience surrogate Johnson spend time with both of them.
I learned a lot about the Wild West, the rise of the railroads, the threat of Indians, the unpopularity of the U.S. military’s push against the natives, and the lawlessness of mining towns like Deadwood in “Dragon Teeth.”
Although this is a page-turner, it’s a notably lighter novel than the later, heavily researched sci-fi novels – including “Jurassic Park” and “The Lost World” — that made Crichton famous. “Dragon Teeth” features many more pages about Johnson trying to protect his crates of fossils from thieves – many of whom assume they are crates of gold, or something with intrinsic value – than it does about the history of fossil hunting.
It’s interesting to think about a time when dinosaurs had only been part of human knowledge for a generation, and when many in the religious community fight against the notion that any of God’s creations could’ve gone extinct. Some of the excitement of the fossil hunt comes through when Cope discovers the titular teeth and names the animal a brontosaurus (Cope named more than 50 kinds of dinosaurs).
But it’s only a few paragraphs of the 292-page book where Crichton digs into dinosaurs and paleontology. The percentage of in-depth research is much less than we’re used to from Crichton.
Instead, he gives us details about what it was like to live in the Wild West, but this is juicy stuff, too. In Deadwood, which has no recognized government, if your cash is stolen, all your money is gone; there’s no authority to even report the theft to. Shoot-outs in the dusty streets are so common that people stand over corpses and chat about the poor soul’s demise as if they’re discussing the weather. And if the authorities don’t believe you are who you say you are, it can be a challenge to prove otherwise.
The author peppers in some of the excitement of living in a frontier town, like when William meets Lucienne in Cheyenne. There’s no deeper plot here; he simply meets a woman who likes him and has a good time. Mostly the West is scary, though, and Crichton doesn’t totally achieve his goal – as explained in the afterword – of overcoming the cliché of a melancholy Old West and portraying people’s excitement about being there.
“Dragon Teeth” won’t join the canon of Crichton’s elite novels, but it’s plenty entertaining, and there’s no question it was worth publishing – even if it took 43 years.