Crichton’s early books return

By Gary Clift

We knew the late Michael Crichton as the author of “Jurassic Park,” “The Andromeda Strain,” and quite a list of other best sellers. We didn’t know his student work.

Now Hard Case Crime, a paperback imprint, is bringing out the novels he wrote between 1966 and 1972 under the name John Lange. He was a student at Harvard University’s medical school during this time. Eight of these books are being re-published, sometimes as corrected by Crichton, this fall.

One of the titles to share the first of two release dates is “Easy Go.” It is a boy’s book of a novel, working through lists either of events (the recruiting of an antiquities theft squad in seven Mission Impossible-like steps, for example) or of research details.

Crichton always prepared himself to write novels by doing research about the central topic-dinosaurs, viruses, or, in the case of “The Great Train Robbery,” popular history.

As he set up to write “Easy Go,” the author researched the Sahara, the Nile, and archeologic study of ancient Egyptian sites. Sometimes he will spend a chapter discussing, say, cobras in the same way (though not to the same effect) as “the whiteness of the whale” is discussed in one of Melville’s chapters in “Moby Dick.”

“Easy Go” was originally published in 1968, and it shows the writer learning some important bits of craft. For example, he begins this book following the character Barnaby, a hieroglyphics expert whose reading of formerly mistranslated tomb writing suggests there is still one ancient pharoah’s grave to be plundered.

Then the point of view moves to Pierce, and it will wander off to follow other characters for short stretches during the rest of the book. These switches are unsettling, and their effects continue to bother the reader just a bit.

Luckily, though, Crichton already had the ability to write rattling prose of the sort that makes a reader go fast until he is engrossed in the events.

The events here are generally good-natured nonsense. Pierce’s pals, including a financial backer who is a rich and titled Englishman, manage to fool their Egyptian government watchdog, to find the long-hidden tomb and to steal a boat on which they intend to transport the gold.

Along the way Pierce falls for Lord Grover’s secretly wealthy ward. And in the end our friends are rewarded and without much damage to Egyptian sovereign control of its antiquities. It is a rattlingly decent yarn as well as a rattlingly good one.

But “Easy Go” doesn’t measure up to Lange’s “Zero Cool,” a thriller with which it shares quite a lot and one which will get its re-release later this month. In “Zero Cool” the hero is a recent graduate of an American medical program who goes to Spain to decompress.

But suddenly he is surrounded by alluring young women and by criminals who want him to perform an autopsy. Unfortunately, other criminals warn him that they will kill him if he undertakes this procedure.

If “Easy Go” is imitation H. Rider Haggard, “Zero Cool” is a slightly cynical “Our Man Flint.” Both have exotic foreign settings, though, as well as romance and considerable intrigue.

I can imagine both these books would make attractive, inexpensive Christmas gifts for readers of spy and mystery and adventure novels. Whatever spark it was that set Crichton’s well-known books apart from the competition is also very much in evidence in these more pulpy novels.

G.W. Clift is an arts critic for the Manhattan Mercury.

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