Last year, Hard Case Crime released the eight novels Michael Crichton wrote between 1966 and 1972 under the pen name John Lange. As a huge admirer of Crichton’s work – Jurassic Park remains one of my favourite novels – I purchased them all immediately, no questions asked. It wasn’t until recently that I finally dived into one: the 1970s-published and Edgar Award nominated Grave Descend.
Diver James McGregor is an orthodox hard-boiled protagonist. Generally unlikeable, tough-as-nails, with a proclivity for trouble. In this instance, he is enlisted to explore the wreck of the Grave Descend and remove mysterious cargo. But things aren’t what they seem: almost immediately McGregor learns he’s being lied to, by more than one person. He’s being played – but to what end? With a pretty penny on the line, he accepts the job; and quickly finds himself hunted by the police, terrorized in hammerhead shark-infested waters, and betrayed by someone closest to him.
Not much here reflects Crichton’s trademark research-infused narratives made famous in Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Congo, State of Fear, and so forth. Grave Descend is very much a crime novel, the prose stripped, and raw, and punchy: it clocks in at less than two hundred pages. It’s deliciously readable, however; reminiscent of those 80’s television shows, where you’ve got your main character who is presented with a situation and spends the next hour solving it, ready to start again next week, same time, same channel. McGregor doesn’t return again, but he very easily could.
Simple but effective, and darn entertaining, Grave Descend is an interesting glimpse into Crichton’s early career, and a satisfactory interlude between tomes (Murakami’s 1Q84 is next on list). Special mention to Gregory Manchess for the striking cover, too; I wish painted illustrations featured more often.
I first read JURASSIC PARK when I was 11 years old, and it has remained locked as one of my favorite novels of all time for 15 years. But it has existed and thrived on memory alone; I hadn’t returned to Crichton’s standout work until very recently. And I’m thrilled to announce it has withstood the test of time. JURASSIC PARK remains a definitive, must-read thriller.
As was his trademark, in JURASSIC PARK Michael Crichton blended scientific implications with a pulse-pounding action and adventure. International Genetic Technologies – InGen – have begun genetically engineering dinosaurs for the purpose of entertainment; in this case, a theme park on an isolated island in Costa Rica. Their intent is to replicate the ecosystem of the Jurassic Age, and they have achieved unprecedented success: dinosaurs now roam the island, segmented and confined to set perimeters – or so they think. In nearby regions, there has been a surge of animal attacks…
The founder and chief executive of InGen, John Hammond, invites palaeontologist Alan Grant and his colleague Ellie Sattler – among others, including Hammond’s two grandchildren, and the vitriolic mathematician Ian Malcom – on a tour of Jurassic Park; but the systems and precautions that were designed to keep visitors safe, and the animal population controlled, quickly begin to fail because of industrial espionage – and those trapped on the island are faced with the impossible task of surviving a night on an island populated by free-roaming dinosaurs.
While several of the characters exist as mouthpieces to lament or applaud scientific advancements, the core cast – Grant and the two grandchildren especially – are fleshed out enough to spark genuine empathy. The action is taut, punctuated with moments that have resonated with me since childhood: specifically when the dinosaurs escape, and our heroes are trapped in their Land Cruisers as a tyrannosaurus rex looms impossibly large… These are moments Spielberg captured in his film adaptation, but are better imagined in the mind’s eye. And while the film limited the brutality of the violence – it was hinted at rather than shown – Crichton doesn’t hold back; JURASSIC PARK is not a gory novel, but when a dinosaur plunges its teeth into flesh he doesn’t shy away from the vicious truth of such an experience.
Twenty-four years have passed since JURASSIC PARK was published, but Crichton’s fears about genetic research and its potential consequences ring true to this day, particularly as we continue to advance in this area. While one could view the novel as an exaggerated premonition of the future, I prefer to reflect on JURASSIC PARK exclusively as a piece of entertainment; and viewed as such, it’s fantastic, and essential reading.
Some of my fondest reading memories from childhood are associated with Michael Crichton. JURASSIC PARK is one of those novels I must’ve read at least half-a-dozen times between the ages of 12 and 18. The same goes for THE LOST WORLD and CONGO – – these were the kinds of fast-paced, smart thrillers I lapped up and adored.
RISING SUN isn’t a thriller, and so, in my youth, it was a novel I ignored. I shelved DISCLOSURE for the same reason – – if a novel didn’t involve monstrous creatures, my interest immediately waned. My tastes have matured since then – – sort of. Cut to a decade later, here I am, another Crichton book ticked off the bucket list – – but unlike JURASSIC PARK or CONGO, I doubt I’ll be revisiting RISING SUN in my lifetime.
RISING SUN is a mystery, set in mid-nineties Los Angeles, about the murder of a young woman in the boardroom of Nakamoto Tower, a Japanese corporation. We follow Detective Peter Smith and retired Captain John Connor over the course of their three day investigation; being pushed and pulled in various directions, played by suspects both foreign and domestic, all of whom have varying motivations.
Crichton highlights the difference between Japanese and Western mindsets, particularly in relation to corporate culture. At times the novel feels like his soapbox, a medium for him to denounce Japanese-American relations, and question foreign investments in the United States’s technology sectors. Connor is well-acquainted with Japanese culture, and frequently articulates factoids, which are at times contrived. The ‘whodunnit’ component of the novel is vastly entertaining – it’s just too often bogged down by lengthy passages of Crichton demonstrating the enormity of his research. In most of his novels, Crichton’s research is demonstrated with far greater nuance – here, it’s like he wants to get everything out, and this hampers plot. Even worse, RISING SUN feels very one-sided; nobody ever stands up and defends the tactics and practices of the Japanese. This began to weigh on my mind as I was reading, which ultimately proved a distraction.
RISING SUN is a quick, enthralling read, but ultimately impossible to recommend unconditionally. There is simply too much clutter effacing the core mystery. A shame, because a streamlined version of RISING SUN is a tantalizing prospect.