Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Book Review - Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
Published by: Dell
Publication Date: May, 1975
Format: Paperback, 266 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Edward Pierce plans to steal the Crimean Gold shipment. This won't be an easy heist. Firstly, he plans to steal the gold from a moving train. Secondly the gold is in two Chubb safes requiring two keys each, for a total of four keys needed. Thirdly, he doesn't know where the four keys are located. Finally, he is willing to take his time to get it right, meaning it's more then a year till he will see the gold and there is a lot of outlay of cash in the meantime to get the right people for the job and to keep them in silent ignorance. With his screwsman Agar ready to copy the keys they set about finding their marks. Two of the keys are held in the railway office, which will be a problem in itself, and the other two are held by men who work for the bank and these are their marks. Even if they succeed in getting all the keys copied and getting them all to work, a year is a long time and changes might happen to the accepted routine of the gold shipment. There could be simple changes to the timetable, or there could be massive changes, like the safes being overhauled. And even if they get away with it, whose to say they won't be eventually caught? This is an audacious scheme that could go down in history, one way or another.

If, prior to reading this book again, you were to ask me what are my top Crichton books I would have replied without hesitation, Congo, Sphere, and The Great Train Robbery. These I have gone back to again and again over the years. The Great Train Robbery easily solidified my obsession with Victorian England and set me on the path to a historical fiction addiction that has never let up. I remember it as an action packed thrill ride with just the right amount of historical context. This is not a phrase I would use anymore. The book hasn't changed in these intervening years, but I have. My reading tastes have expanded and been refined and what was once a thrilling read came across as disjointed and almost laborious. The best example I have by way of comparison is when I re-read all of Jane Austen's books. I had a very distinct hierarchy that was blown to bits when I picked them up again. Northanger Abbey surged from last place to be near the top, whereas Mansfield Park declined. But there was no more precipitous a decline then Emma. Ranking in the top three Emma became my most hated of all Austen, her behavior, while amusing and laudable to a teenager, annoyed the heck out me the more "grown up" me. The Great Train Robbery is the Emma of Crichton; oh how far it has fallen.

When I was younger I was very gullible when it came to books, which is very odd when you realize what a skeptic I am in regard to everything else. But if a book said it was "true" I believed it. Therefore when William Goldman said that his book, The Princess Bride, was an abridgement of the book of the same title by S. Morgenstern I believed it. In fact I spent probably a good few years annoying people in my belief and my desire to get a hold of the "real" book as I saw it. Yes, this might be naive, but what can I say, I was a teenager without the vast resources of the Internet. Therefore it was a logical conclusion that I assumed The Great Train Robbery with Crichton's desire to always make his books "real" actually happened. I was totally flummoxed that the only "Great Train Robbery" happened in 1963. I was convinced this couldn't be right. Thankfully I have been redeemed a bit in this belief by finding out that there was the "Great Gold Robbery" that Crichton based his book on, so I was partially right. Why I felt the need to have this truth I don't know, but it made the book something more to me.

The facts and figures that are sprinkled throughout the book lend veracity to it. When I first read The Great Train Robbery it was my first book that presented history in an approachable manner. I learned more truths then most textbooks print, and that might be why I so wanted the heist to be real; the glamor of a story provides a more interesting world any day. But re-reading it all these facts and figures actually don't lend themselves to the narrative. They might have educated me at one time by now all they do is interrupt the narrative flow. As for the narrative itself? Well, there isn't that much story, which the facts and figures do a good job of disguising. Also, what I found very aggravating this time around was that so much of the "history" and the "commentary" went beyond the timeline of the heist, aka 1854-1857. The book references events, periodicals, and statistics so far in the future, some more then a hundred years in the future, that it lacks the feeling of "now" and makes it more academic. Crichton has always had a problem balancing narrative with an overabundance of facts. In the middle of his career he seemed to find a happy medium, but at the beginning and again at the end of his career he let the research overpower the narrative and us readers are left feeling bored waiting for the story to resume.

What I found most annoying though was Crichton's desire to use the argot of the time. But instead of lending character and flavor to the book he seems to be using it to purposefully obfuscate the story. The language at times gets so bad that characters don't understand each other and what they say has to be translated. Say what? If your own characters don't understand each other then how does the story work exactly? How am I to understand what they are saying? Everything needs to be explained and this makes the narrative, what there is in between the plethora of facts, even more clunky. The only reason I can think for Crichton to do this was that the historian in him took over. He had all this vast research of facts and figures that he kept throwing into the heist narrative he obviously must have had reams of research as to the argot of the criminals living in The Holy Land. So instead of dumbing the book down to make it palatable, ie legible, he made the language 100% realistic and decided that either he would explain it or just leave his readers muddled. As someone who reads a lot of books with slang and argot, I have to say he really let the ball drop on this one. It doesn't work, and hence The Great Train Robbery's swift decline in my definitive ranking of his books.

But there's also a part of me that wonders, was the book Crichton's end goal for this story? He was already doing films at this time. In 1973, two years before this book came out, he wrote and directed Westworld. The rights to The Great Train Robbery were bought right when the book came out. Within three years the movie was already in pre-production with Sean Connery attached. Crichton would eventually direct it and it would be released in 1979. If you look at the book not as a book but as a treatment for a film it makes far more sense. The narrative, minus all the extraneous historical details, is a quick, fast, and fun heist. But in order to translate it from page to screen you would need to know all these extraneous historical details in order to capture the time period just right. Yes, the details lend reality to the book, but as they are presented in the book they don't work. If Crichton had wanted to write the best book he could there would have been more integration, more cohesion. BUT if he was looking towards another medium as the end goal? Why bother? Just lay the facts out, have the narrative interspersed, and wait for the time for the film to be made. This theory makes sense of the book in my mind. It also makes me very excited to watch the movie again to see if this theory of mine holds up...


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