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November 1, 2013

The Unknown Early Work of Michael Crichton - Part One

It was a real-life mystery that could have been a film noir. Between 1966 and 1972, a writer by the name of John Lange published eight paperback suspense novels. These were the kind of books with racy and sexy covers once found in drug stores, airports and bus stations. One of them even got nominated for an Edgar Award in 1971.

Then John Lange just disappeared, apparently vanishing right off the face of the earth. His books soon followed and fell out of print for decades, perhaps showing up now and then in a garage sale or used bookstore.

The overactive mind fills in the details. Was Lange just another broke and broken-down writer, living in SRO hotels, a bottle and typewriter his only friends? Did he give up his writing dreams and go into public relations, or teach part time in colleges? Or, as Danny DeVito’s character said in LA Confidential, did Lange end up taking the “night train to the big adios?”

Then a clue emerged in 2006 and 2008, when two of Lange’s books suddenly were reissued in all their pulp glory with brilliant original artwork covers by Hard Case Crime Books. But still there was precious little information given out about John Lange. All Hard Case Crime admitted at the time was this: “As regards to the somewhat reclusive author, we ask only that you respect his privacy.”

The mystery continued.

Until now.

John Lange was actually Michael Crichton, who was about as far from a failed writer as you could get. Years before he wrote THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and JURASSIC PARK and long before he wrote blockbuster movies like Twister and created hit TV shows like “ER,” Crichton was an honors student at Harvard Medical School and writing paperback pulp novels on the side.

“The Lange books were a training ground, a place where Michael first explored some of the genres and storytelling styles he used later in his career,” says Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime. “They’re all fun reads.”

Now the eight Lange books are being published for the first time under Crichton’s real name in two installments by Hard Case Crime. The first four --- SCRATCH ONE, EASY GO, GRAVE DESCEND and BINARY --- released on October 29th. The second four --- ODDS ON, ZERO COOL, THE VENOM BUSINESS and DRUG OF CHOICE --- will follow on November 19th.

“They stand up very well,” Ardai says. “Of course, they’re artifacts of the time when they were written, as all books are. That means that an expensive Lamborghini is described as costing $14,000 and computers are programmed by punch cards and you’ll find some of the racy, sex and drug elements that were au courant in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. But that is part of the books’ charm, and the thriller aspects are every bit as pulse-pounding and page-turning as they were when he wrote them.”

The Crichton/Lange books coming out in October are:

GRAVE DESCEND: This 1970 book was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1971. A diver in Jamaica is hired to search the wreck of a sunken luxury yacht. But he is hired for the job before the yacht sinks. In noir, nothing is what it seems and Crichton made good use of this fact. The book shows that an early Crichton was a master not only of telling a story but anticipating the entertainment that people would love in the years to come. The waters are shark-infested, several years before Peter Benchley gave us both Jaws and The Deep.

SCRATCH ONE: In this 1967 book, Lange’s story was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Set in the French Riviera, a case of mistaken identity could cost American lawyer Roger Carr his life when a group of Middle Eastern terrorists mistake him for a secret agent sent to kill them.

EASY GO: This 1967 work is about a professor of archaeology who discovers a Pharaoh’s lost tomb in the Egyptian desert. He quickly recruits a five-man crew of smugglers and thieves to plunder the treasures.

“I’m a big Indiana Jones fan,” Ardai says, “so I have a personal fondness for EASY GO. There is a scene where a character is trapped in a tomb in the dark that is just nail-biting. Classic suspense.”

Crichton anticipated the appearance of Indy Jones 14 years before George Lucas brought out the first movie. Also, Crichton studied anthropology in Harvard and taught it at Cambridge University for a year. His first major at Harvard: English. But he changed majors when a professor criticized his writing style!

BINARY: Set in the year it was written, 1972, BINARY tells the story of a crazed right-wing madman who comes up with a plan to kill one million Americans, including the president of the United States, by releasing a weapon of mass destruction, a chemical binary gas, during the Republican convention in San Diego. Four decades before the advent of the TV show “24,” Crichton employed the real time countdown as chapter titles. He also used a lone Federal agent to thwart the attack.

Great writers tap into the zeitgeist of their time. This book, like all of them, works well as a suspense story --- in each chapter, somebody will ask what time it is --- but reading Crichton now is both a fascinating look at the past and a foreshadowing of the American surveillance state to come. It is a time when computers had cathode ray tubes. There is even a fascinating description of an early fax machine.

He mentions that an agency few Americans had ever heard about in 1972, the NSA, had more computers than anybody in the world. And it is shocking that exactly 41 years after this book was written, a young man named Edward Snowden blew the whistle on that agency and government spying on American citizens. Crichton’s disillusioned Federal intelligence agent reflects:

“During his fifteen years in the government, slowly and imperceptibly his enemy had shifted from the Big Bear, the Russkies, the Reds, the ChiComs --- to his fellow Americans. That was his job now, and he hated it. It was tapping telephone transmissions and competing with other agencies; it was value judgments and it was very, very political… Nothing was clean and direct anymore.”

Fiction back in 1972, but these exact words could have been said by Edward Snowden in 2013. What was once fiction has become fact.

The early John Lange novels written by Michael Crichton are a must-have for all Crichton fans. These books show a young writer on the cusp of the greatness to come.

Click here to read Part Two of Tom Callahan's article, in which he talks about the releases of  ODDS ON, ZERO COOL, THE VENOM BUSINESS and DRUG OF CHOICE.