Di­nosaurs of the wild, wild West

A fic­tional tale of sci­en­tific com­pe­ti­tion based on the real life – and very com­pet­i­tive – search for fos­sils in 19th cen­tury Amer­ica.

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NO need to check Google. Yes, sadly, Amer­i­can author Michael Crich­ton died in 2008 but he has a new novel, Dragon Teeth, thanks to his archives and ded­i­cated wife, Sherri Crich­ton.

In an af­ter­word, she says the book has “Michael’s voice, and his love of his­tory, re­search, and sci­ence all dy­nam­i­cally wo­ven into this epic tale.”

The cover looks re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to Juras­sic Park and, like that 1990 thriller, deals in di­nosaurs. But it’s about the fevered search for fos­sils in the Wild West, not a theme park where the once-ex­tinct preda­tors de­light and then de­vour vis­i­tors.

Any new Crich­ton novel is a cause for cel­e­bra­tion (his books have sold more than 200 mil­lion copies world­wide) but Dragon Teeth is a slow starter.

The first half of the nearly 300page novel feels as if you’re climb­ing a steep hill on an old wooden roller­coaster. You’re wait­ing for the click­ety-clack to give way to adren­a­line and air­time. That mo­ment ar­rives but it re­quires pa­tience.

Crich­ton, in­spired by his cor­re­spon­dence with a mu­seum cu­ra­tor, rooted his story in the real-life ri­valry be­tween Oth­niel Charles Marsh and Ed­ward Drinker Cope. The pi­o­neer­ing palaeon­tol­o­gists were re­spon­si­ble for the dis­cov­ery and nam­ing of 130 kinds of di­nosaurs.

Our guide to their world is fic­tional Wil­liam John­son, a priv­i­leged Yale stu­dent. To save face and win a wa­ger, John­son fi­na­gles his way onto a Marsh fos­sil-hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tion headed west in sum­mer 1876 but even­tu­ally finds him­self in Cope’s camp bound for the same ter­ri­to­ries.

Di­nosaur hunt­ing has shifted from Europe to North Amer­ica, the transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road has made the trans­port of mam­moth bones pos­si­ble, and Marsh and Cope are mak­ing sci­en­tific his­tory. “And they knew that fame and honor would ac­crue to the man who dis­cov­ered and de­scribed the largest num­ber.”

It’s the his­tor­i­cally rich time of Custer’s Last Stand, the Great Sioux War, Bill Hickok’s poker game in Dead­wood and a fos­sil feud fu­elled by sci­ence, se­crecy, sus­pi­cion, and cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion. The rep­tile riches are unimag­in­able, as when what will be chris­tened a Bron­tosaurus is found in the Mon­tana bad­lands.

“Cope mea­sured the teeth with his steel calipers, scratched some cal­cu­la­tions on his sketch pad, and shook his head. ‘It doesn’t seem pos­si­ble,’ he said, and mea­sured again. And then he stood look­ing across the ex­panses of rock, as if ex­pect­ing to see the gi­ant di­nosaur ap­pear be­fore him, shak­ing the ground with each step’.”

John­son, a one­time ten­der­foot, must fig­ure out a way to stay alive and afloat – and safe­guard the fos­sils in his pos­ses­sion – in places with no law­men or laws. It’s at that point that Dragon Teeth picks up the pace and re­sem­bles the page-turner we ex­pect.

This is not the first post­hu­mous pub­li­ca­tion of a Crich­ton book. Pi­rate Lat­i­tudes ar­rived in 2009, and Mi­cro, com­pleted by Richard Pre­ston, in 2011.

Dragon Teeth bears only Crich­ton’s name but it seems as if it could have used one more re­write or at­tempt to shape the ma­te­rial by stream­lin­ing the start, strength­en­ing the Amer­i­can In­di­ans pas­sages (less re­liance on de­scrip­tions such as “sav­age shrieks” and “whoop­ing”) and giv­ing the front half the same sense of en­ergy and ur­gency as the sec­ond.

Crich­ton ac­knowl­edged that he com­pressed the leg­endary MarshCope an­tag­o­nism into a sin­gle sum­mer and in­vented John­son. He cau­tioned in an author’s note: “I would not read this novel as his­tory. For his­tory, read Charles Stern­berg’s de­tailed ac­count of Cope’s trip to the Mon­tana bad­lands in The Life Of A Fos­sil Hunter.”

There could be no Juras­sic Park with­out th­ese bone wars but live di­nos trump dead ones any day. Still, if early Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Chan­nel plans to turn Dragon Teeth into a lim­ited se­ries come to fruition, Marsh and Cope could be­come rock stars in the lit­eral sense of that phrase.

As Dragon Teeth re­minds us, the gold rush had noth­ing on them. – Pitts­burgh Post-Gazette/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Author: Michael Crich­ton Pub­lisher: Harper, ad­ven­ture

Dragon Teeth

Photo: AFP

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