Wednesday, 30 July 2003

Tom Holland: The Bonehunter (2001)

Edition: Abacus, 2002
Review number: 1175

Dinosaur bones are something that people have been obsessed by since the earliest investigations into fossils, and the field was especially exciting in the second half of the nineteenth century for several reasons: the possibility of making sensational discoveries, and the thrill of being involved in the controversies about Darwinism and geological ideas of the ancient earth. Tom Holland has moved from historical horror novels to historical thriller with The Bone Hunter, a novel which features several men obsessed with finding dinosaurs in the American West in 1878.

Holland's story begins in a liner crossing the Atlantic, heiress Lilian Prescott returning home to New York after a trip to England culminating in her (Henry James style) engagement to a peer. She and her brother meet another passenger, a former British army captain named Dawkins, who is travelling to New York to meet their father. Captain Dawkins is, like their father, a dinosaur fanatic, but when he meets Sheldon Prescott it soon becomes clear that something is going on which is more serious than the admittedly fierce competition that exists between rival dinosaur hunters. This rivalry is stirred up when Prescott offers to see a great secret to the two best known Americans in the field; and this is is when people start dying.

The novel's first part is mainly set in New York, and is similar to another story set in the same time and place, E.L. Doctorow's The Waterworks. The second half, a quest into the still Wild West, is far more brutal, a picture of a sordid and vicious culture of violence without the romanticism later provided by Hollywood.

The Bonehunter is generally gripping (as might be expected from a writer who cut his teeth writing horror novels) and well written, an unusual thriller and proof that Holland can produce as good a novel without the supernatural elements of his earlier work. The one flaw it has is the treatment of the romance which grows up between Lilian Sheldon and Captain Hawkins; the descriptions of their inner feelings and of their conversations seem artificial and unconvincing.

For anyone who wants to read something different in the historical thriller line, however, The Bonehunter is a novel well worth looking out for.

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