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The new Michael Crichton novel has dinosaur bones and gunslingers, but it lacks a soul

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A good book for your summer vacation

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

Michael Crichton passed away in 2008, but his work has only become more popular since. A revival of his Jurassic Park franchise broke global box office records, while the HBO adaptation of his original film Westworld became one of 2016’s most exhaustively discussed TV shows. Until this month, Crichton’s work has lived on as inspiration. That changes with Dragon Teeth, one of the author’s unfinished novels, which was published by his estate this month. A fun thriller that echoes Crighton’s catalog, Dragon Teeth also shows the pitfalls of rooting around a deceased author’s papers for new hits.

On paper, the book sounds like a blockbuster. Set in 1876, the novel follows a wealthy college student named William Johnson, who heads off to the American West with Professor Othniel Marsh to dig up dinosaurs. It’s a dangerous expedition: the US Army is waging a brutal war against the area’s native tribes in the area, while prospectors and outlaws have taken to shooting anyone the deem suspect. Worse, Professor Marsh is engaged in his own contentious battle with a rival paleontologist, Edward Cope.

Cope and Marsh were actual historical figures, and the afterword to this novel explains that much of the story drew extensively from real events. The so-called Bones Wars saw an intense rivalry between the two scientists; both tried to use disinformation, bribes, and outright violence to best the other.

Crichton inserts the entirely fictional Johnson into this drama as a means to comment on the Cope and Marsh rivalry. His introduction — a description of two contrasting photographs — is classic Crichton masculinity.

“As he appears in an early photograph, William Johnson is a handsome young man with a crooked smile and a naive grin....a later photograph marked ‘Cheyenne, Wyoming, 1876,’ shows Johnson quite differently. His mouth is framed by a full mustache; his body is harder and enlarged by use; his jaw is set; he stands confidently with shoulders squared and feet wide.”

The novel outlines happens between those two images. We follow Johnson as he signs on with Marsh’s expedition, goes West, is recruited by Cope for his expedition, tangles with native tribes, outlaws, and miners, all as the scientists make some incredible discoveries in the rocky slopes of the Montana Badlands. Along the way, he goes from a soft rich kid to a tough, experienced explorer.

This book feels comfortingly familiar. There are dinosaurs, high-stakes action, and more than a little deliberation about how scientific progress is changing humanity’s understanding of the world around us. While Crichton is best known for his techno-thrillers such as Jurassic Park, Timeline, or Sphere, this feels more like his period-set Great Train Robbery or Pirate Latitudes.

However, Dragon Teeth isn’t likely going to end up on the list of the best Crichton novels. While the book presents a fun collection of scenes and action that briskly carries the reader along, the story never quite clicks. All the parts are there, but when combined, it feels like a raw, somewhat unfinished manuscript. Perhaps this is because, in some ways, it is.

The story meanders, characters are introduced and dropped without notice, and Johnson’s journey feels surface deep. It’s a solid draft, but there’s a reason this particular story wasn’t published in the first place. And so Dragon Teeth feels a bit like a ghost of the author’s best works.

The publishing of Dragon Teeth also raises a familiar ethical question: should a deceased author’s unfinished stories see the light of day? After his death in 2008, Crichton left behind a huge collection of papers, and Dragon Teeth is the third such posthumous novel released since 2008. Micro which was completed by The Hot Zone author Richard Preston came out in 2011, while Pirate Latitudes came out in 2009.

It’s easy to see why these books made it to market: Crichton is a reliable success in bookstores, and adaptations of his work have performed exceptionally in the past. But Dragon Teeth and the other posthumous books feel like a rushed attempt to capitalize on the Crichton Brand, and none have really captured the glory of the author at his best.

Where books like Jurassic Park or Timeline were memorable reads, there’s not really anything in Dragon Teeth that will make it an enduring Crichton story. It is, at best, a fun beach read, one that likely won’t tarnish the late author’s reputation. But it won’t advance it, either.