As if extracted from amber, a new story has been reanimated from the fossilized brain of Michael Crichton. Recently “discovered” in the late author’s archives (Crichton died in 2008), “Dragon Teeth” is a light historical novel that bears all the narrative traits of its techno-thriller ancestor, “Jurassic Park.” It’s a fun and diverting romp through the Old West in search of dinosaur bones.
The story centers on William Johnson, the handsome, cocksure son of a wealthy Philadelphia shipbuilder. In 1876, William is goaded by a rival into passing up a cushy vacation in Europe for a hardscrabble expedition on the American frontier with paleontologist Othniel Marsh.
Crichton is splicing strands of history and fiction here. Marsh was an actual legend in the field; his many discoveries — and rich uncle, George Peabody — gave rise to Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. In “Dragon Teeth,” Marsh enlists William as his team’s photographer. But the mercurial professor suspects that the young man is a spy dispatched by his archenemy, Professor Edward Drinker Cope.
Cope, also a towering real-life figure of early paleontology, discovered hundreds of prehistoric species, and he and Marsh fought bitterly in the late 1800s during a period of rich fossil discovery — the Bone Wars — that ultimately ruined both men.
Early in “Dragon Teeth,” Marsh’s suspicions about William get the better of him, and he abandons the young man in Cheyenne. It appears the Ivy Leaguer’s adventure has come to an end, but Cope arrives on the scene and invites William to join his own expedition headed for the Montana Territory.
Eventually, of course, William will find himself alone and imperiled, venturing through lawless, hostile territory over unforgiving terrain. Is the spoiled tenderfoot hard enough?
“Dragon Teeth” is filled with colorful Wild West characters, including Morgan and Wyatt Earp , and Crichton writes vividly, offering several suspenseful, racing passages. One of the most memorable arrives when William and the rest of Cope’s team narrowly escape a buffalo stampede: “They eventually could see nothing, and could only listen to the thundering hooves, the snorting and grunting, as the dark shapes hurtled past them, ceaselessly.”
The novel also touches on the debate between science and religion. By the campfire on the night of a particularly momentous paleontological discovery, Cope finds his faith shaken. “Religion explains what man cannot explain,” he says. “But when I see something before my eyes, and my religion hastens to assure me that I am mistaken, that I do not see it at all. . . No, I may no longer be Quaker, after all.”
But the best thing about “Dragon Teeth” might be the escape it affords us from such philosophical complexity. One night, William tries to explain the importance of his discovery to a hotel clerk. “These bones are valuable to science,” he insists.
“We’re a long way from science,” the clerk replies. “Just get ’em out of here.”
John Wilwol is a writer in Washington.
By Michael Crichton
Harper. 295 pp. $28.99