Sometimes trunk novels need to stay in the trunk. That was my takeaway from Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth (HarperCollins, May 2017), a novel published posthumously earlier this year. (Crichton died in 2008.) As a novel of the Bone Wars, the bitter feud between rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, it drew my attention: fictional representations of the Bone Wars are, shall we say, a professional interest of mine, as I’m working on one myself.1
Set in 1876, it follows the fictional William Johnson, a feckless Yale undergrad who, on a bet, signs up with Marsh’s expedition to the west. Johnson spends the rest of the novel bouncing between the paranoid Marsh and the tempermental Cope, surviving the west in the immediate aftermath of Little Big Horn, being left for dead and surviving the lawless town of Deadwood.
You’d think this would be interesting, but I struggled to give a damn, partly because Johnson is literally the least interesting character in the book, a blank onto which the reader can project himself.2 The prose is spare, the description light—I haven’t read any Crichton prior to this (there have been audiobooks) so I don’t know if this is an underwritten first draft or Crichton’s regular modus operandi. But one gets the impression of an author laying down the beats, setting up the basic tracks, before coming back to finish it, and never doing so.
But it’s also because I’ve read plenty of stories about the Bone Wars, about Cope and Marsh’s expeditions, about Marsh’s relationship with indigenous tribes—and they were all more interesting than this. The fact that National Geographic is adapting this into a TV series boggles my mind; it’s unnecessary. Read The Gilded Dinosaur by Mark Jaffe (Crown, 2000) or The Bonehunters’ Revenge by David Rains Wallace (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), detailed, readable historical accounts that appeared after Crichton wrote Dragon Teeth. Or track down Charles Sternberg’s memoir, The Life of a Fossil Hunter (1909). Or see the “Dinosaur Wars” episode of The American Experience, which ran in January 2011. Dragon Teeth was a disappointment in that as fiction, it did not add measurably to the real-life story, which is already kind of amazing. Crichton’s book is superfluous.