Review: ‘The Lost World,’ by Arthur Conan Doyle

Dinosaurs in the 20th century? In 1912, Sherlock Holmes’s creator invented the template that Michael Crichton would follow almost eight decades later.

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THE LOST WORLD by Arthur Conan Doyle | Review first published Oct. 13, 1912

When Conan Doyle sat down to write “The Lost World” did he say to himself he would prove that Rider Haggard had not exhausted the possibilities of weird and amazing fiction? Or did he stick his tongue in his cheek and set out to write a caricature of novels of adventure? Or did he just simply take all the strings off that scientific imagination of his and let it riot unrestrained with his central idea? Whatever his purpose, he has produced a highly interesting tale of outlandish adventure of a sort to stir the pulses and arouse the wonder of even the “jaded” novel reader.

For he goes back of the hintermost beyond of man’s knowledge, and has his little company of 20th-century scientists and adventurers test their courage and their skill against the huge and loathsome beasts of the Jurassic period. They fight for their lives with pterodactyls, see iguanodons at play and watch the tragedies of life among the gigantic dinosaurs. And finally, at the climax of their nightmarish experiences, they come upon a tribe of man-apes, missing links, and for a time it looks as if the 20th century would go down before the survivals of antiquity.

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    The author’s passion for detail, and his skill in handling it, together with his exact scientific knowledge, make it all seem not only possible but perfectly real. His pterodactyls and his dinosaurs and even his missing links are, indeed, rather more real and convincing than his two scientists, who are portrayed with broad and humorous caricature. The easy, plausible steps by which he leads up to the starting of the expedition and the realistic and amusing account of the public meeting in London at which it has its inception are all skillfully done and serve their purpose perfectly. But one can hardly say the same of the ending of the tale, where, in order to preserve the color of actuality, Sir Arthur has overreached himself and stumbled into anticlimax. After the returned party has turned a young pterodactyl loose in a London lecture hall it is something of a jar for the reader to be taken aside and be shown a cigarbox full of diamonds. Such prizes have been the purpose, the excuse, the climax of tales of adventure time out of mind, and they look commonplace enough at the end of such experiences as this party had gone through and beside such loot as they had brought back.

    Whether or not Sir Arthur meant to satirize fiction of adventure in general he surely wrote with the satirical mood strong upon him. The little touch of young ladydom at the beginning and the end is a delicious bit of irony. The feud between Professor Challenger and Professor Summerlee, the two scientists of the expedition, is made to yield a constant stream of broad satirical humor. Challenger himself, a burly, black-bearded, violent-tempered man, is a distinctive creation, though he is a caricature rather than a character. But he is always amusing. More interesting, because approaching nearer the true type, is the character of Lord John Roxton, explorer and mighty hunter, who joins the expedition because “this huntin’ of beasts that looks like a lobster supper dream” promises “a brand-new sensation.” It is to be hoped that we have not heard the last of Lord John, that, indeed, he may succeed Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle’s affections.

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