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November 22, 2013

The Unknown Early Work of Michael Crichton - Part Two

Fans of the late Michael Crichton are getting an unexpected treat this holiday season with the publication of his early mystery and suspense novels for the first time under his real name. These eight books were written as “John Lange” between 1966 and 1972 when Crichton was an honors student at Harvard Medical School. They show a writer on the brink of greatness.

Six of the books have not been in print for almost half a century. Two of them --- GRAVE DESCEND and ZERO COOL --- were reprinted in 2006 and 2008, respectively, by Hard Case Crime. But even then, readers were unaware that the unknown and largely forgotten Lange was actually one of the most successful writers in America. The publisher simply described Lange as a “somewhat reclusive author.” He was a lot more than that.

“We didn’t mention Michael’s name when he was alive at his request,” says Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime. “Before we came along, he’d never allowed anyone to reprint the Lange books, which he had never publicly acknowledged. He wanted to keep the Lange books separate from the big new bestsellers he was writing at the time. So we kept them under the original pseudonym.”

Hard Case Crime has been a constantly innovative force since its creation in 2004. The publisher’s mission has been to keep alive the great hard-boiled, noir fiction of the Golden Age of pulp paperbacks and beyond while showcasing authors doing original work today in the same genre. The publication of the Lange/Crichton books represents the first time the publisher released so many books by one author at a single time.

“It was a decision made by the Crichton Estate,” Ardai says. “Putting all eight John Lange books out at once will make a bigger splash than issuing them at a rate of one or two each year. People walking into bookstores will see all eight laid out side-by-side on the front tables, quite an eye-catching display. And I think Michael’s family liked the idea of having them all available to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his death. Personally, I like the idea that people can buy the eight books as a set --- what a fun Christmas gift that would be for readers who like our books.”

The first four --- SCRATCH ONE, EASY GO, GRAVE DESCEND and BINARY --- released on October 29th. The second four --- ODDS ON, DRUG OF CHOICE, THE VENOM BUSINESS and ZERO COOL --- followed on November 19th.

The November releases of Crichton/Lange are as follows:

ODDS ON: This novel about the perfect heist was the first Lange book written in 1966. Even then, Crichton had an ability to anticipate the future of technology and scientific trends. The twist here is that every aspect of the robbery of a super-luxury hotel off the coast of Spain has been simulated on a computer. This was 18 years before IBM introduced the personal computer.

“When he wrote THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY a decade later,” Ardai says, “I’m sure he drew on some of his earlier ideas.”

Indeed, the Crichton/Lange books are fascinating not only because they are good stories that hold up well over nearly half a century, you can see the earliest seedlings of what would become monster hits for Crichton. We all remember JURASSIC PARK. Well, 20 years before he penned it, he wrote:

DRUG OF CHOICE: Yet another island for a luxury vacation, this book was written in 1970. Think of the most perfect, relaxing experience of your life and bioengineers have figured out a way to give it to you in a simple pill. San Cristobal is “the greatest place in the world,” one character says.

Of course, you don’t know you are being drugged for your entire trip. And the true horror is not the robots taking over, such as in the 1973 movie Crichton directed called Westworld, or the dinosaurs getting hungry, but in the evil corporation --- Advance Inc. --- taking over our lives and the world for profit.

Just as a Lange novel released last month, BINARY, foretold the rise of the NSA surveillance state, DRUG OF CHOICE foresees a time of total corporate domination of our desires and lives. The villain says toward the end of the book:

“You’re fighting for a principle that doesn’t exist. Already you are manipulated, pushed, pulled, tugged by your world. Do you think a car is beautiful? If you do, it is only because somebody paid millions in advertising to make you think so. Do you find a woman attractive? If you do, it is only because somebody planned the fashion, the clothing, the walk, the talk…Don’t you see that your preferences are all conditioned? Don’t you see you are manipulated every minute of your life?”

This book also contains one of the best, most suspenseful openings you could want in a noir novel.

THE VENOM BUSINESS: This 1970 Lange book is about an expert snake handler, Charles Raynaud, who is also a smuggler of rare artifacts. He accepts a seemingly simple job as a bodyguard, but things do not go smoothly. The action moves from the snake-filled jungles of Yucatan to Paris, as Raynaud starts to wonder if he might be the real target of the killers. This is a book in the true pulp adventure style.

“THE VENOM BUSINESS is by far the longest of all the Lange books --- at about 400 pages --- and consequently has a somewhat larger scope,” Ardai says. “But again, it’s a lot of fun.”

This book also has an incredible, colorful cover painting done by the great pulp artist Gregory Manchess. Manchess did the covers of the two Lange books Hard Case Crime republished in 2006 and 2008. This time, he shared cover art duties with Glen Orbik, with each of them doing four covers apiece.

ZERO COOL: In 1969, a young doctor looking for some rest and relaxation on the swinging beaches of Spain gets mixed up with criminals in search of a rare jewel. His life is soon in danger. Here, Crichton got to play with some classic pulp conventions, even as he was updating them. For one thing, there is the old pulp maxim that if a beautiful woman suddenly falls madly in love with you and can’t stop having sex with you, you should immediately grab your wallet and race for the door. Crichton also updates THE MALTESE FALCON using a real falcon.

And a true delight: one of the villains --- a Count who is a small person and comes complete with cape --- bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dr. Loveless character in the great 1960s TV show “The Wild Wild West.” (And Dr. Loveless was brilliantly played by the wonderful actor Michael Gordon.) So with his eye for what would be great movies and TV --- think “ER” --- Crichton just might have been influenced also by that Friday night show.

Crichton wrote new opening and closing chapters for ZERO COOL not long before his death in 2008. But the entire venture might not have happened at all if not for another great writer and friend of Hard Case Crime.

After Ardai published Stephen King’s THE COLORADO KID in 2005, he mentioned to King how he would love to publish the Lange books. King encouraged Ardai to contact Crichton and “tell him that King says he should do a new Lange to go with the old one.”

But alas, the new Lange book never came to be. “I have a feeling that he might have eventually written a whole new Lange book if he lived longer,” Ardai says. “He certainly had fun working with us on the two we did while he was alive.”

And now those eight John Lange books are finally available for all of us to enjoy. They will appeal not only to the millions of readers who loved Michael Crichton’s work, but also to all fans who love hard-boiled pulp fiction. They serve as a capstone to a brilliant career and show why Hard Case Crime is an invaluable publishing house and Charles Ardai a great editor. Long may he do this work and give us more great reading.

Click here
to read Part One of Tom Callahan's article, in which he talks about the releases of SCRATCH ONE, EASY GO, GRAVE DESCEND and BINARY.