2017 (1974, actually); 333 pages. New Author? : Of course not. Genre : Coming-of-Age; Action; Western Adventure; Archaeology. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
William Johnson has it made. He’s 18 years old, from a well-to-do family, and a freshman at prestigious Yale University. Like most freshmen, he is shy around girls, and prone to doing stupid things in his spare time, such as making idle bets with other, equally well-off students.
Othniel Charles Marsh is a professor at Yale and a leading expert in the new field of paleontology. Dinosaurs, or to be more exact, dinosaur bones, are a recent discovery and are all the rage in archaeology right now. Marsh’s hobby during summer break is to fund a trek by a select group of Yale students out into the wild and untamed west in search of dinosaur bones.
Johnson has no interest in joining in on such an adventure. His goal for summer break is to lay around the mansion. But a thousand-dollar bet with a rival classmate over whether he’s too chicken to go along on Marsh’s expedition changes things. That’s a lot of money, even for a spoiled rich kid.
Which is why, William Johnson, writing in his journal, remarks that, “I realized that, through no fault of my own, I would now spend the entire summer in some ghastly hot desert in the company of a known lunatic, digging up old bones.”
What’s To Like...
Dragon Teeth was published in 2017, nine years after Michael Crichton died. This may seem preposterous, but he actually wrote it in 1974, and it languished as an early effort that he chose not to have published. Sixteen years after penning this tale, Jurassic Park was published, and I'm pretty sure Crichton forgot all about this manuscript.
Genre-wise, this is first and foremost a coming-of-age tale. Johnson starts out as a spoiled brat, and comes back a mature man. Wikipedia calls it a “forerunner to Jurassic Park”, but if you read it in hopes that velociraptors will go stomping around, chomping on puny humans, you are going to be sore disappointed. Instead, it is a tale of an adventure out West, with some paleontology thrown in as an added bonus.
This may be a rookie effort, but Michael Crichton’s writing skills are already evident. You get a nice “feel” for frontier life in the 1870’s, and his descriptions are blended smoothly with his research about the wild West, digging for dinosaur fossils, and boom towns springing up anywhere that gold was found. The Sioux are still on the warpath, and Custer is about to be made aware of that fact.
The chapters are short, of James Patterson-ish length. They are neither numbered nor listed in the front, but each one has a descriptive title to clue you in as to what’s about to occur. There’s a map at the front of the book, which helped me keep track of where the fossil-hunters were traipsing around, although its resolution is poor. There are a couple cusswords, but that’s about it for R-rated stuff. Both Johnson and I enjoyed meeting Emily Williams, or whatever her name really was.
I really liked the photography sections of the story. There was no such thing as film, a store nearby that would develop your pictures, or digital cameras. My father had his own darkroom, and I used to assist him in developing film into slides. My grandfather had some ancient photographs, on old sepia-colored glass plates, which are referenced here. This brought back some great memories for me.
Michael Crichton weaves his insights about some subtle topics into the storyline, most notably some thoughts about Science-vs-Religion (pgs 132-35), and blind faith (pgs 174-5). And if you're a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, Deadwood Gulch is your kind of town. Imagine living in a place where there are no rules, laws, and/or enforcement agencies. Surely, this is Anarchist Paradise.
The ending is satisfying, albeit not overly exciting. Appended to the story are a couple neat extra sections: a Postscript, in which Crichton tells you what happened to some of the real-life figures encounters in the story; an Author’s Note, where he separates fact from fiction, and a touching Afterword from his widowed wife, giving some background about Michael and this book, and leaving a lump in my throat.
Kewlest New Word ...
Nymphs du pave (n.; phrase) : a streetwalker; a prostitute who solicits in the street. (French for “nymph of the pavement”)
“You are saying this Neander skull is human?” Morton said.
“I don’t know,” Cope said. “But I do not see how one can believe that dinosaurs evolved, and reptiles evolved, and mammals such as the horse evolved, but that man sprang fully developed without antecedents.”
“Aren’t you a Quaker, Professor Cope?” (…)
“I may not be,” Cope said. Religion explains what man cannot explain. But when I see something before my eyes, and my religion hastens to assure me that I am mistaken, that I do not see at all … No, I may no longer be a Quaker, after all.” (pg. 169)
“You’re different,” she said. “You’re brave, but you are also refined. I bet you kiss real refined, too.”
She was waiting.
“I learned,” Johnson wrote in his journal, “one immediate lesson, which was the unwisdom of kissing aboard a bucking stagecoach. My lip was deeply bitten and the blood flowed freely, which inhibited, but did not stop, further explorations of this nature.” (pg. 303)
I still regard three months in the West in much the same way I would three months forced attendance at the German Opera. (pg. 20 )
The quibbles are minor. The thrills and spills don’t really start until about halfway through the book, so after a hundred pages or so, I was beginning to wonder if all we were going to do was ride around the countryside and dig up fossils. Yet Michael Crichton can make even that interesting, whic is no small feat.
The pacing is moderate, which is okay for a coming-of-age story. And a glaring deus ex machina popped up when our protagonist, having lost all his photographic equipment and having no useful skills with which to earn some money in Deadwood Gulch, has the good fortune to learn that a previous resident, also a photographer, had perished in the wilds, but miraculously left all of his equipment behind in the town. The townspeople, who rob and steal and loan-shark without a second thought, have conveniently left all those photographic plates and chemicals untouched, and now give them to Johnson for fre.
But I pick at nits. Dragon Teeth was an extremely quick and easy read, with a catchy plotline and a well-researched setting. It may not be Crichton at his best (that wouldn’t happen for another 16 years), but it was still a delightful read.
7½ Stars. I rarely read Westerns, but if it's written by Michael Crichton, I'll make an exception.