Book Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

The book I turned to when I very nearly walked away from ‘Stranger From A Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein’, was ‘Dragon Teeth’ by Michael Crichton. I’d chosen it simply because the cover has the fossilised skull of a dinosaur emblazoned across it. Crichton was, after all, the mind that invented Jurassic Park, and even if I do think the film is far, far better than the book, I will always believe I like his writing as a result, whether truthful or not.

I didn’t get more than 50 words into ‘Dragon Teeth’, however, before I returned to Stranger From A Strange Land, not because Crichton had done anything wrong, but because I’d become so befriended by the previous characters I couldn’t walk away. Finally, though, having forced myself through Heinlein’s polysyllabic speech, I returned to Crichton’s apparent dinosaur story. Keenly awaiting the prehistoric adventures that, I thought, lay ahead.

Crichton may be famous for Jurassic Park, his wildly dreaming story of dinosaurs brought back to life, but in ‘Dragon Teeth’, they are remaining very much dead. It’s set in the Wild West of America, taking place during the Goldrush era towards the end of the 19th Century, and in fact, doesn’t really involve dinosaurs at all. It’s more of a biography, littered with fact and fiction, that is told through a series of vignettes. The result is a book, that was a long way from anything I expected and that I really don’t know quite what to make of.

Firstly, an hour’s reading would create these vast distances between the electronic page markers of my eBook. Teasing my mind into feeling like I was flying through its story, consuming it rapidly, yet this apparent pace didn’t match up to the events unfolding on the page. I expected to run out of pages long before the story had wound up anywhere conclusive, or potentially, even got going. But it doesn’t. Somehow, ‘Dragon Teeth’ never ran out of room and I was taken from A to B without feeling like it’d forgotten anything and, more importantly, without feeling like I’d been rushed or cramped.

The book is told from the perspective of a reminiscing narrator. I have no idea in my mind exactly who that narrator was, but it makes the book feel like you’re listening to a friendly conversation, rather than reading a historical account. Doing so creates the rhythm and language simple to follow. It is untaxing and engaging, drawing it’s environment and characters clearly, but 2-dimensionally, in your mind. There are moments, however, were an attempt to envoke the “language of the day” caused my mind to stutter on a line that no longer scanned, but these were fleeting and any aftershock nothing more than a ripple. The problem, though, comes from the pace. There is a singular linearity to it and ‘Dragon Teeth’ never changes gear. It never feels like it’s moving with anything more than a walk. That’s not to say that it’s slow, but time passes at the speed a clock ticks.

My biggest sense of unease though came from the little vignettes Crichton has used to structure the tale. They feel unfinished, and lacking in sustenance. Where you’d expect a traditional chapter to find it’s feet and start running, in this, they stop. Having conveyed the bare minimum of information required to explain an event, they simply move on to the next, without pause or afterthought. But even that isn’t a huge criticism. It’s not a sense of extreme conciseness, but rather, that the story never bothered to develop any depth. It’s one story, of one man, and it will only look around his sphere of influence. If it creates a question or interests beyond his field of vision, that’s too bad. It may acknowledge them, and occasionally it felt like it’d papered over others, but I never felt like I was being treated like a fool, or that it was ignoring the obvious. Simply, instead, that that they are just unimportant to the overall story.

There is one major point where the book fails for me. It introduces some very famous real-life characters into an apparently fictional world for reasons that don’t seem necessary. Even though a lot of the characters are based on reality, they are unknown enough to carry no weight of expectation. The style and tone present very much of a story of non-fiction wrapped in a language of fiction to keep the book light and enjoyable. But to suddenly introduce the equivalent of the Hollywood A-list into this world destroys everything. The credibility it’s created disappears, as the waters of reality are muddied, and everything becomes fringed with a sense of parody. I suddenly had no idea how serious this book was trying to be anymore and there is a wonderful irony that the closer to real life the book’s story gets the further away from real life the tone ends up being.

I, usually, ignore the post-script thank you’s and preamble praisings that accompany some books. I’m not that interested in a list of names I’ve never met who read the first draft at 2 A.M., or the musings of another author explaining his favourite passages of the book I’m yet to read but, for some reason, having finished ‘Dragon Teeth’ I continued and read the authors note. And doing so, so many of the thoughts I had about the book where explained. ‘Dragon Teeth’, was published after Michael Crichton’s death. It is a discovered manuscript, his wife thinking it was too good not to share with his fans, but for me, rather than being “discovered”, ‘Dragon Teeth’ feels discarded. I think it’s nothing more than the basis of an idea that was never finished, that Crichton could never pad out properly. This knowledge unlocks a sense of frustration in the text. That is longed to be more than it is. You can feel that it’s born of quality though, the talent Crichton had underpinning the images and the story it brings to life, but you can also feel the abandonment of a story that he couldn’t polish up. It feels like Crichton put it in a drawer for a reason, and while it’s fun to read, I think it probably should have stayed there.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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