"But don't you turn your back, you'll become a snack
'Cuz some Tyrannosaurus could be hungry for us..."
- Opening theme from Land of the Lost (1991)
Dr. Orpheus Preson is a mammologist, attached to the Broadly Institute of Paleontology, whose books guide the general public through the pre-history of this planet and is working on the second volume of The Days Before Man, but a series of newspaper advertisements in his name has disturbed his peace of mind. The advertisements are requests for unusual employers to appear for a job interview and someone even ransacked Dr. Preson's office to remove the labels from the bones he was working on. Unfortunately, the police can do little to remove this pest from Dr. Preson's life and driven to desperation, appears to have mixed a lethal dose of Phenobarbital with his morning milk, and evidence has surfaced that suggests that Preson has been persecuting himself. But was it really a botched cry for attention?
This is the premise of Frances and Richard Lockridge's Dead As a Dinosaur (1953), in which Pam and Jerry North are lured yet again into a murder case, however, they are somewhat innocent this time – as it was North Books Ltd. that published The Days Before Man and Preson did ask Jerry's help in this matter. And there’s more than enough to work on. Orpheus Preson has left everything he possessed in life to the institute, but his family plans to contest the will, because Orpheus was evidently of unsound mind when it was drawn up.
Dr. Jesse Landcraft, a retired scientist, is the second person to die and his death leaves no questions whether it was murder or suicide, and casts a new light on the poisoning of Preson. The body of Dr. Landcraft was, more or less, put on display in an exhibit enclosure at the Broadly Institute, showing a recreation of a prehistoric cave with a man, and the murder weapon was an ancient stone hammer – placing this one firmly in the Van Dine-Queen tradition. Bizarre murders? Check! Specialized background? Check! Family names with literary allusions? Check (Orpheus has a brother named Homer)! Buddy cop(s)? Check! Ingenious solution? Eh... 50/50?
In my opinion, the persecution plot and subsequent poisoning of Dr. Preson was the most impressive part of the story, simple but clever enough to satisfy, while the only real point of interest in the murder of Dr. Landcraft were the circumstances in which his body was found and the newspaper headlines that followed in the wake of his death.
I also felt that this was point that the story had run its course and that made all the moving around towards the end a bit tiresome, but overall, a decent enough detective story from a couple who are still being read today – and I can see why. Frances and Richard Lockridge may not always have been on the top of their game, but Pam and Jerry North (and the characters orbiting around them) are nice, intelligent and sophisticated characters and there's an affinity for our feline friends running through the books, which must appeal to today's readers of cozies.
Before ending this post, I want to direct your attention to my review of Voyage into Violence (1956), which I thought was a class-act mystery from the Lockridges.