I was so happy to hear about Dragon Teeth – a ‘new’ book from Michael Crichton. Since first reading Jurassic Park over twenty years ago, Crichton has been one of my top authors, with another of his books, Timeline being one of my all-time favourites. His books are always a combination of thrilling and informing, treading a fine line between science fiction and science fact. His stories leave the reader feeling satisfied with the plausibility of the story, as well as being thrilled by the pace.
A posthumous novel
Crichton sadly died in 2008, but it seems he was prolific enough that complete novels of his are still coming out of the woodwork. Indeed, while Dragon Teeth was only published recently (2017), it was initially written in 1974 — one of those ‘lost novels’ that sometimes emerge posthumously. It was written well before Jurassic Park (1990) but reveals that his interest in the ancient monsters had been stewing for a long time before that particular book emerged.
Dragon Teeth isn’t a tale of monsters though, nor does it stray much from historical accuracy. Our hero is William Johnson, a spoilt Harvard student who is costing his father a fortune by his reckless living. In his pride, he ends up heading into the Wild West to win a bet. He’s accompanying an eminent palaeontologist from the University, Professor Marsh, who is travelling there to make a name for himself discovering dinosaur fossils. Marsh has an arch-nemesis; another palaeontologist, Professor Cope. The battle between the two professors adds much to the enjoyable tension in the story.
Set in 1876, this is a dangerous time to be heading to Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, with tensions brewing as a knife-edge treaty between the Native Americans and the US government begins to fall apart. The ‘Wild’ West has, at this point, become much more easily accessible due to the advent of the railway, but it’s still many days travel away, with lawless towns that are surrounded by practically uninhabitable land.
Crichton tells the story well, setting a good pace throughout. The characters feel well portrayed, and it is fascinating to think about the exploration and adventure involved in possibly one of the most mundane scientific interests – that of painstakingly extracting ancient fossils from a rock.
A Western thriller with depth
There’s additional depth to the story with Crichton drawing several real events in from around that historical period into one long summer. General Custer’s fall at the battle of the Little Bighorn plays a pivotal role as the Sioux Indians begin to move North in retaliation to the treaty being broken – killing every white person in sight. He addresses it in a nuanced manner though, referencing the ill-informed liberal journalists from the East coast dealing harshly with the obedient soldiers who, doing their job, found themselves fighting a war against a brutal enemy (who mutilated and scalped its opponents) and yet became despised for it by the people back home. Throughout the story, we see complex sides to the Indians, both deadly, brutal warriors and caring home-makers. In the manner that he writes it, I wonder whether Crichton drew parallels between the Indian-American war and the Vietnam war.
I certainly enjoyed this novel from one of my favourite authors – I was delighted when I heard another book would be coming out, and although it isn’t his absolute best, it left me satisfied. After reading Dragon Teeth, I was interested to note that the rivalry between the two professors was real and that Crichton decided to tone down the violence as he felt that it wouldn’t have seemed credible to modern western readers. The Wild West is alluring, but I’m pretty glad I don’t live in that time or place.
I’m glad Dragon Teeth was released, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read an enjoyable story that doesn’t require a considerable amount of patience to get through (unlike some of the other books I’m currently reading).
N.B. If you’re a fan of Michael Crichton’s writing, you might enjoy my latest short story. It’s titled *cough cough* ‘Jurassic Peckham‘. I’m releasing a chapter per week on Storygram.