Written by: Michael Crichton
Released in the UK by: HarperCollins, 1st June 2017
Following buccaneering adventure Pirate Latitudes and shrink-ray techno-thriller Micro, Dragon Teeth is the third posthumously released and previously undiscovered novel from prolific author, screenwriter and director Michael Crichton since his 2009 passing. Despite exhibiting a wealth of research, this historical Western archaeology lark is – by some degree – the least accomplished of the three, and a far cry from the bestselling scribe’s other dinosaur adventures.
The terse story adds fictional drama to a very real rivalry by creating a protagonist (and excerpts his diaries) to view the bitter and competitive relationship between lecturers and palaeontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope through neutral eyes. William Johnson is a Yale student who goes west with Marsh’s 1876 expedition on a bet. Determined to win $1000 from one of his more arrogant classmates, Johnson endures a summer of gunfights, Indian tribal attacks, solitude, hardship, love affairs and famous faces – all the while attempting to keeps Cope’s crates full of fossils and Brontosaurus teeth safe from thieves, marauders and Marsh’s jealous clutches.
Despite being a short, zippy read comprised of a many sub-5-page chapters, Dragon Teeth’s writing style irked me from the off. Crichton chooses to waste little-to-no time in evoking an atmosphere or setting a scene, using only brief, cursory descriptions throughout. Therefore, big moments feel rushed and undramatic, while months of bone digging is – if you’ll pardon the pun – brushed over in a single sentence!
The implementation of full paragraphs from Johnson’s travel journals also feel unwieldy and sit awkwardly alongside the prose, which is written by a blithe, omniscient narrator. Were these logs real it would at least be understandable, but as fabrications themselves the jarring dissonance is frankly frustrating.
I love Michael Crichton, I really do. The man was undoubtedly a genius mind, but this early manuscript from his vault feels sketchy, amateurish and, at times, horribly cliched. Deadwood and Wyatt Earp are two names even the genre-wary will instantly associate with Westerns, while a number of chapters are rounded out with lazy predictions from the all-knowing writer’s voice which the characters would have zero chance of guessing (“Little did they know…”).
With the earliest record of this novel dating back to 1974, my suspicion is that Dragon Teeth is a juvenile attempt at long-form creative writing by a growing and evolving author. As it stands it feels lacking, mere bare bones of a plot lacking any flesh. Like Harper Lee’s long-unpublished, recently made public Mockingbird prequel, Dragon Teeth serves only as a fan curio, one for the most ardent Crichton completists. And even some of those might agree that it should have remained buried.
CR@B’s Claw Score: