Michael Crichton,
The John Lange Collection:
Grave Descend, Drug of Choice, Zero Cool, Scratch One,
Binary, Easy Go, Odds On, The Venom Business

(Hard Case Crime, 2013)

Long before he wrote The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Congo or any of the others, Michael Crichton worked his way through Harvard Medical School writing eight paperback originals under the pen name John Lange. Originally published between 1966 and 1972, the novels have long been out of print. Now Hard Case Crime has brought all of them back in handsome quality paperback editions, this time under Crichton's byline.

How do they hold up? Well, having them all before us at once, it is easy to see the formula Crichton used for the Lange books: in nearly all of them an American traveling in Europe finds himself caught up in the middle of some major criminal activity that he does not understand and should not be a part of. For example, in Scratch One, an American lawyer named Roger Carr goes to France to negotiate the purchase of a villa for a client, when he is mistaken for a spy sent to take down a band or terrorists and finds himself to suddenly be their target. In Zero Cool, the protagonist is an American radiologist on vacation in Spain when he finds himself in the middle of a battle between rival groups of baddies.

Sometimes Europe is not the locale. Both Grave Descend and Drug of Choice take place in the Caribbean, but otherwise the formula is the same. In a few of the books, the protagonist isn't, as Hitchcock was fond of phrasing it, the ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The Venom Business gives us a smuggler, while Odds On concerns three men out to rob a luxury hotel, thereby providing a slight variation on the formula.

Only in Binary does Crichton throw out the formula altogether. In it, a political radical plans to unleash nerve gas at the 1972 Republican convention, a plan that will kill every major Republican office holder and candidate, including President Richard Nixon. A federal agent has to stop him.

Crichton was a master at plotting. He generates suspense and is great at imperceptibly upping the ante, so that conflicts grow deeper and stronger as the book goes on; he keeps you turning the pages. Once you're involved in one of his books -- and involvement comes early -- you can't put it down.

However, he will never be mistaken for a master of characterization. His characters are as flat as a sheet of printer paper and just about as thin. His characterization relies on tags; each character has his little behavioral tics or distinguishing physical characteristics and each time he or she makes an appearance, Crichton refers to the tag so that we can tell which character this one is. A murderous doctor is always playing with a scalpel, for example, or a smuggler is handling a snake. Women in these books are often distinguished by the size of their breasts -- Crichton will never be accused of being a feminist.

What he was often, as both John Lange and under his own byline, was creating thrill-a-minute rides that, once you embark on them, give a lot of pleasure.

Formulaic as they are, it is still good to have the John Lange books available again, especially under his own name, which will help make them available to a wider readership and get them the notice they deserve.

Now, if only someone would bring back the truly forgotten Crichton novel, the book about a couple of college-age marijuana dealers that he wrote with his brother and published under the name Michael Douglas: Dealing: or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues.

Click on any cover to order the book from Amazon.com.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

22 March 2014

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