Toward the end of the 19th century, when fossilized bones were first providing evidence for an entire prehistoric world, two obsessed paleontologists brought dinosaurs into the mainstream. Othniel Charles Marsh and Edwin Drinker Cope spent decades excavating, researching, assembling, and popularizing dinosaurs. They also spent decades attempting to sabotage and discredit each other. Both men resorted to espionage, bribery, theft, violence, and destruction of fossil beds to “out-collect” the other while also attempting to also ruin each other’s scientific reputations through attacks in the press. While each made groundbreaking discoveries, the rivalry of Marsh and Cope probably set back the new field of paleontology. Ultimately, each man died penniless, victims of his own compulsions and antagonism.
When I first heard the story of the “Bone Wars” I thought it was a fascinating one, ripe for adaptation. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. In 1974, Edwin H. Colbert, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History began corresponding with Michael Chrichton, then, the bestselling author of The Andromeda Strain and a handful of less successful books. In their letters, Colbert introduced the Cope/Marsh story to Chrichton, who was inspired enough to write Dragon Teeth.
Crichton chose to semi-fictionalize the historical events, inventing a central character, William Johnson who, on an ill-advised bet, falls in with the real-life paleontologists on an 1876 fossil hunting expedition to the Wyoming Territory when the west was truly wild. Along the way he switches loyalties from Marsh to Cope and, finally, to the very concept of scientific discovery. He survives Indian attacks, holds his own in a Deadwood showdown, discovers the brontosaurus, and falls in love. Twice. He has Forest Gump-ian run-ins with loads of historical characters. General Phil Sheridan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Brigham Young, and Wyatt Earp all make appearances.
For some reason Crichton never published Dragon Teeth. This is his third book published posthumously, after Pirate Latitudes and Micro. We can’t know why it remained in his archives for so long, but die-hard Crichton completists can be glad for the chance to read it. Others, expecting the career-high writing style of Jurassic Park might be disappointed. But fans of early Crichton, especially his similarly researched, mid-seventies, 19th century, historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery, should be pleasantly surprised.