Binary and Grave Descend are two titles from a series of pulp fiction novels penned between 1966 and 1972 by John Lange, who the world now knows as Michael Crichton. If a picture paints a thousand words, almost everything can be divined from the excellent front cover illustrations: there’s mystery aplenty, danger, a soupcon of intrigue as well as a splash of sauce, thrown in for good measure.
The plots are as classic, as timeless as a love story. From those not selected for this review, Easy Go is about a professor of archaeology stumbling across the tomb of a lost Pharaoh, and hatching a plan to plunder it. Sound familiar…? The cover of Scratch One glories in a delicious looking woman catching some rays, with the tagline: ‘murder stalks the French Riviera’. Quite… Flip over to the back cover blurb and bells instantly start ringing: ‘…Middle East…terrorist…assassinations…United States…deadliest agents…killers.’ Kerching!
Binary grabs you from the very first line, and maintains a firm grip throughout, hurtling full-tilt towards an expected – even obvious – conclusion. But the orthodoxy of the trajectory does not detract. (After all, can you imagine Indiana Jones not escaping with both the treasure and the girl? Could the Eurotrash terrorist really get the better of Die Hard’s John McClane, and realise his evil plans? Mwuhahaha…. Of course not). These titles do exactly what they say on the tin. Binary is about a brilliant loner-cum-political radical, seeking to kill millions – including the President of the United States – by releasing a deadly nerve gas in a major US city. And the only man who can stop him is a brilliant loner-cum-jaded government spook, John Graves. Indeed the latter only drags himself into the metaphorical ring, not the save the President, or even the unsuspecting millions, but simply for the thrill of man-on-man combat against such a worthy opponent. Naturally, the other players in the story shrink into the background as the two titans square up. Those in Graves’ corner reduce down to a cackle of earnest government employees drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, whilst doing their best impression of battery hens in a coup. The story is tight, pacey, relentless and thrilling. Exactly what fans of the genre would want.
Grave Descend stands out for being unpredictable – the story arc is not laid bare after page one. A professional diver is hired to investigate a wrecked, sunken yacht off the Jamaican coast. The location sets up a heady mixture of exotic destination, wealthy foreigners and hot women soaking up the sun, and the author is not shy in spreading the fantasy generously across the pages. But there is a refreshing element of genuine suspense too: why did the vessel go down? What of the mysterious cargo and the shady owner? Why the cover-up? What secrets will the next page reveal…? There is also the occasional skit, a passing detail as if from a personal travel journal, that really adds depth to the reader’s immersion in the time and place:
“The Hotel Reserve was a two-storey frame building, painted pink, and flaking…The top floor was rented out to yacht crews; the ground-floor rooms were kept vacant, so that the studs who picked up women in the bars downtown could bring them back for a quick taste of native rhythm.”
There’s so much to take from just that one extract, all of it the result of the passing of time. It certainly adds another dimension, one that wouldn’t have been present for the reader when these books were first published.
Any Cop?: A perfect, escapist adventure – one which you can almost touch, taste and smell. Which, of course, is the gift of a writer who knows his craft.