Michael Crichton put himself through medical school writing paperback thrillers, under the pen name John Lange (a German pun on his 6-9 height). He wrote seven of them between 1966-70, but in 1969, the same year he received his MD, he published, under his own name, The Andromeda Strain, which was a best-seller and doomed his medical career. In that same year he published A Case Of Need, under another pen name, Jeffrey Hudson (a famous 17th century dwarf) which won an Edgar award.
Perhaps because it was the last of the Lange books, Binary may be the best place to start, because it is a taut thriller that moves straightforwardly, and contains a confrontational puzzle at its center. It's anchored firmly in its time, as a right-wing millionaire plots to explode a canister of nerve gas over San Diego as the Republican party holds its convention there, and President Nixon arrives from the Western White House in nearby San Clemente. Interestingly, the convention in reality was moved to Miami Beach (not for reasons of terrorism) but in a brief note Lange explains he preferred to leave his book as it was).
The millionaire is John Wright, and John Graves is an agent for the State Department's Intelligence Division who has been tracking Wright and his extremist views, and is on alert because of the convention. Meanwhile, a shipment of nerve gas has been stolen from a train—the gas is transported in two canisters, each inert until they are mixed, hence the title of the book. What ensues is a cat and mouse battle between Wright and Graves, which Wright relishes, and in which Graves is always playing catch-up; it is a binary situation just as much as the deadly chemicals.
Crichton moves the pace along quickly, and handles the chess game between the two fairly, with Graves' more interesting battles coming with other government agencies. It's interesting, in light of the influences which are obvious in the earlier books, such as those detailed in Grave Descend, which is reviewed below, that Graves should be working for a man named Phelps—of course on Mission Impossible Peter Graves played Jim Phelps. Call it a hommage. It's also worth noting that Glen Orbik's cover is one of the best Hard Case covers, in the style of pulpy paperbacks, but the alluring femme fatale doesn't really appear in the story at all!
What makes Binary the most interesting of these releases is not so much Crichton's usual technical aplomb, but the way the story resonates with the present day. The use of nerve gas obviously prefigures modern WMD and terrorist worries, but in Wright Crichton creates a character right out of today's Ayn Rand reading Tea Partiers, the kinds of people who felt frustrated in the post-Goldwater Republican party, but who, in the years since Ronald Reagan have taken it over. The idea that they are the true terrorists wasn't completely ahead of its time, but it was in the James Bond category in those days, and here, in contrast to Grave Descend, Crichton saw through it to what it was.
Grave Descend was published in 1970, and nominated for an Edgar, which reflects the sure hand Crichton had developed writing the first six Lange thrillers. It;s very entertaining, but seems slight, and I wasn't quite sure why until I went back and looked at the other nominations and winners in the best paperback original category—Dan J Marlowe's Flashpoint, not one of his great ones, won the award that year (1971) but most books were still being reprinted from hardcover in those days; the pb original market was nowhere near as deep as it is today. I retrospect, it's far less slight than it seems by today's standards. Similarly, A Case Of Need won the Edgar for best novel, and it's odd looking back just how traditional in orientation that award was at the time.
James McGregor is a diver based in Jamaica who is hired to investigate the wreck of a luxury yacht, called Grave Descend, only he watches the ship blown up and sunk after he's hired to retrieve its cargo. Crichton's influences come through very clearly here: there's more than a little John D MacDonald here. I wrote on this blog when I linked to the obituary of Crichton that I wrote for the Guardian (follow the link here), that Crichton had obviously learned from MacDonald's bigger, mainstream novels, more than the Travis McGee ones. But here McGregor, like McGee, specialises in salvage,and also has McGee's attitudes toward women—a combination of 50s old fashioned morality and 60s sexual freedom, as well as the classic hard-boiled suspicion of affection offered. This is a major part of most of MacDonald's non-McGee hard-boiled thrillers. MacDonald was expert on getting just enough technology and detail into his books to make them seem realistic, and more importantly to make the plot grow from that reality; this was the way he constructed those later, major novels, which often seem very close to what Crichton was doing.
There's also a lot of Ian Fleming here—the island setting, and its enigmatic cop, and the master-villain sort of set-up in the isolated mansion and classy yacht. McGregor's local helper, Chingnachook to McGregor's Hawkeye, is there to provide the necessary deus ex machina, and it all comes to a rousing climax, with a surprisingly downbeat and nicely written anti-climax. It is a fine example of Crichton's innate story-telling ability—how he was able to distill the familiar tropes of the time, and give them freshness. He would find his own niche in medical and scientific thrillers, but never settle for just that, and these books are a good indication of why.
Grave Descend (ISBN 9781783291243) and Binary (ISBN 9781783291250)
are published at £7.99 by Titan/Hard Case Crime
NOTE: This essay will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)