“Old Bill Coulter used to say a quiet day in Fillmore County is a temptation to God and sure enough, come sundown after a day of blue skies and fair winds, distant pulses of lightning began to play along the horizon, heralding a big storm on its way.” So begins Homer Hickam’s latest novel, The Dinosaur Hunter. Not a subtle start, but a murder mystery doesn’t require restraint—nor, in fact, does any account of life in Montana, where 150 years of ranching has eradicated neither the hardship of prairie life nor the darkness in the human heart. Hickam’s fictional Fillmore County, a stand-in for several real communities in east-central Montana, is full of cattle, cowboys, ranchers, and, in a fun and educational twist, paleontologists. It’s a mix sure to cause trouble and to fulfill the promise of that storm on the horizon.
Mike Wire, narrator and principal investigator of the story, is a retired Los Angeles cop who came to ranching country for a fresh start. His boss, Jeanette Coulter, is a tough widow with an intense passion for the land—her land—and no patience for interlopers. When dinosaur hunter Norman “Pick” Pickford arrives with promises of great scientific discoveries lying beneath the badlands, Jeanette relents and allows him onto the Square C Ranch. A season of digging, romantic entanglements, and dreams of fame and fortune is followed closely by murder and mayhem, putting Mike right back into the business of gunfights and catching bad guys.
Hickam, whose fame was secured by his bestselling memoir, Rocket Boys, and by subsequent novels set in places as disparate as outer space, Appalachia, and the battlefields of World War II, is not just a rocket scientist; he’s also an accomplished amateur paleontologist. For dinosaur hunters, Tyrannosaurus Rex is the ultimate score, and Hickam has two finds to his credit. He uses that background to provide an intimate portrait of life on a dig. It’s hot, filthy work that can be rewarded by insight to a world lost for 65 million years, where herds of triceratops, not cattle, ranged the west and giant carnivores, not human criminals, fought over turf. Hickam clearly loves his hobby and has found an engaging way to share it, and the wonderful discoveries it has brought to the world.
But The Dinosaur Hunter is not just about the odd ways of paleontologists. The modern ranching life, full of conflict with bureaucrats, weather, and changing times, is as much a part of Hickam’s narrative as the ancient bones and the corrupting influence of lust and money. Montana’s big skies and wide prairies still spark romantic thoughts of days in the saddle and freedom from the rat race, and the people who have made that life their own are treated well in this novel, admired for their honesty and determination against long odds. In that sense, his first mystery novel is not a great departure from Hickam’s earlier works about the struggles of West Virginia miners. The Montanans of Fillmore County are of similar gritty, sturdy stock and carry on the great American tradition of independence and perseverance. Even in the face of murder.
Homer Hickam signs The Dinosaur Hunter at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville on November 11 at 7 p.m.