- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2011

By Homer Hickam
Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99 311 pages

Readers delving into the pages of Homer Hickam‘s “The Dinosaur Hunter” will unearth as much a mess as they will the tale’s supposed mystery. In this latest effort, the author of “Rocket Boys” (the inspiration for the film “October Sky”) and “Back to the Moon” awkwardly attempts mixing paleontology with police sleuthing. The resulting plot is as dry as the Montana plains its characters inhabit, an ultimately frustrating work given its intriguing premise.

“The Dinosaur Hunter” starts strong, introducing readers to the inimitable protagonist Mike Wire. An ex-Los Angeles homicide detective, Wire spends his days scraping by as a Montana ranch hand and his nights longing for his widowed boss, Jeanette Coulter. His voice is an interesting one, the perfect mix of self-effacing comedy and cowboy slang. Wire also affirms Mr. Hickam‘s talent for creating likable characters, made memorable by the author’s rustic but wry storytelling.

Sadly, it is one of Mr. Hickam‘s other skills that stops his current work short of the finish line. Where his previous tales deftly balanced action with academic know-how, “The Dinosaur Hunter” collapses under the added weight of an unfolding whodunit. Wire’s quiet country life is disrupted when a pack of paleontologists exposes a mother lode of rare dinosaur fossils on his employer’s range. The find sparks a passive-aggressive struggle between all manner of federal and private interests, and the mystery takes shape when someone starts slaying cattle (and eventually people) in conjunction with the fossils’ excavation. Taking on the ever-cliched one last case, Wire finds he can best protect the paleontologists and his adopted home by rediscovering the detective skills he abandoned a decade earlier.

Given Mr. Hickam has masterfully mixed engrossing writing and empirical science on numerous other occasions, it is disappointing to find the story unravel somewhat because of these weaker elements.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hickam has done his homework, having crafted informative and interesting pieces of dinosaur trivia spouted by the book’s chief paleontologist, Dr. Norman “Pick” Pickford. Pickford offers a compelling yin to Wire‘s yang, offsetting the grizzled cowboy with a hippie-professor persona straight out of a New Age commune. He’s a mad genius, giving readers impromptu Saurian seminars here, bizarre philosophical soliloquies on time there. His coupling with Wire also provides the novel’s most interesting moments given most of the other characters are caricatures of cowboys, bureaucrats or criminals.

It’s a world where “common folks” shoot straight, the government governs ineffectively and the bad guys start off sleazy before ending sleazier. Mr. Hickam tries hiding this conventional formula by granting each of his stereotypes a minor distinguishing trait - his bureaucrats, for example, allow for brief asides on the perils of expanding government. It’s a nifty trick, one that almost makes readers forget how familiar some of the characters feel.

Unfortunately, “The Dinosaur Hunter” falls apart as it ambles toward its unsatisfying end. The story’s pace slows to a sluggish crawl when it becomes apparent neither the dinosaur digs nor the recurring crimes will contain fulfilling conclusions. Without giving too much away, the former ends with underwhelming results and the latter ends with one of the most outrageous cases of deus ex machina imaginable. The final effect is one of lethargy, almost as if the story has given up like some beast sinking into a tar pit after a difficult struggle.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t strong bones in the book’s narrative skeleton. It’s at times funny, at others educational. Dinosaur experts and novices alike should have a field day with the wealth of prehistoric knowledge scattered around the plot like so many bone fragments. Western fans will be surprised by how often their favorite genre peeks out of Mr. Hickam‘s writing. The novel’s grand finale, for its part, proves action-packed despite its implausibility.

It all makes for a case of too little, too late. “The Dinosaur Hunter” has evolved far enough up the literary family tree to provide occasional entertainment, but it can’t hide its flaws. It’s a short read, but one too meandering and mild for its own good. Chances are that most readers will relegate this to the annals of prehistory, forgetting it as it dissolves into the past.

Mark Hensch is an intern for The Washington Times. He writes a heavy-metal music blog, Heavy Metal Hensch, for its Communities website.

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