Friday, June 21, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: BINARY by John Lange, AKA Michael Crichton


One of the best things about coming up with new posts for this series is that I now have a legitimate reason to sit back and revisit some of my favourite thrillers again. In some cases for the third or fourth time. I don't know about you but it's not always easy to find time to go over old books when there are so many shiny new ones sitting there on my TBR pile, all waiting to be cracked open. But since my blog now demands I make the time, and since I am but a slave to my blog...

So anyway, it was while I was rereading the focus of this week's post that I realized I'd only actually read BINARY once before. Which amazed me, frankly, because for some reason it's one that's really stayed with me over the years. Possibly because it's such an overlooked part of Michael Crichton's bibliography, or maybe it's because this was the first Crichton book I ever read which in turn motivated me to seek out all his other books. I'm not really sure. But I do know that it seemed to be much better than I remembered the second time round, which was an extra little bonus I hadn't counted on. I only wish it happened more often.

But let's kick things off with a brief summary of the plot, shall we? And since I don't want to give too much away I'll keep it to a single paragraph:

A U.S. Army train is hijacked and a group of armed men take off with two canisters of a top secret and highly deadly nerve agent. John Graves, a State Department investigator, believes a wealthy millionaire named John Wright is responsible and that he plans to use the nerve gas in an attack on the Republican National Convention at San Diego while the President is in town. A battle of wits ensues as Graves tries to figure out Wright's plan before he can put it into effect. However, the wily Wright always seems to be just one step ahead, and with a million lives at risk Graves can feel the clock slowly ticking away...

There. Told you I'd be brief.

So what we have here is a fairly straightforward race-against-time thriller set over a twelve-hour time period. Crichton makes it quite clear right from the start. There are 13 chapters in the book. The first comes under the title of 'Hour 12.' The last is 'Hour 0.' So once we get past the prologue - a dry account of the train robbery in the form of an official government report - we're off to the races as Graves tries to outguess his latest adversary before he can wipe out a whole city.

Now I've heard people complain in the past about Crichton's simple prose (such as Martin Amis, about whom I have absolutely no comment), but I think here it really does work well. Because there's barely a wasted word in the whole tale. No adverbs. No metaphors. No 'clever' turns of phrase. Everything, including the dialogue, is stripped right down to its basics to service the plot and keep the pace going. For example:

    They came to the street and ran outside. By his side Nordmann was puffing, red in the face. Graves felt no strain at all; he was tense and full of energy.
     'Rope,' he shouted to a cop. 'We need rope.'
     The cop went off to get some.
     'Hurry!'
     The cop hurried.

Hardly flashy writing, but it's nice and tight and it keeps things moving moving moving. And with the absolute minimum amount of verbiage too, which is very much a skill in itself. I'm the same when I'm writing a novel. Sometimes it's very tempting for an author to wax lyrical and show the world how eloquent he is, and that's fine for some. But personally, I much prefer to stay invisible in the background and let the story and the characters take centre stage, and I tend to warm to those authors who do the same. (I think Elmore Leonard said it best: 'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.') But that's not to say the book's all technical nuts and bolts. Throughout much of the novel Crichton allows us to experience Graves' thoughts as he sets about his task, often with a little of Graves' dry humour thrown in too:

     He found himself worrying about Wright's new apartment in San Diego. Perhaps this was all a diversion, a feint to get him away from the apartment while something important was done there. He had no confidence in the men sitting across the street, observing and filming. Like every organization in the world, the State Department hired mundane men to carry out mundane jobs. Stationary surveillance was the most mundane. If the men weren't dull when they started, they soon became that way.

Crichton writes in third-person, but he manages to keep a pretty tight rein on the narrative by focusing on Graves' POV consistently throughout the book. Or almost. As I mentioned, I'd only read the novel once before so I was under the impression he never veered away from the main character at all (much as Roderick Thorp never strays from Joe Leland's viewpoint in NOTHING LASTS FOREVER - see earlier post), but he actually deviates on three occasions.

The first is when when he devotes the entire 'Hour 8' chapter (unnecessarily, in my opinion) to one of Wright's goons as he helps hijack a couple of trucks whose contents are essential to Wright's plans. And in the final chapter, Crichton moves the camera a couple of times to focus on a pair of cops standing guard outside a certain room. Granted, this one's a little more necessary, but I think Crichton could easily have found a way around the problem in order for the narrative to stay with Graves, because it's kind of a distraction when he pulls away. Admittedly a very minor one, but noticeable nevertheless.

And it has to be said, BINARY is a perfect title for the book. Not only is it a crucial element of the plot - Wright's file lists him as a mathematical genius obsessed with the idea of 'two component reactions leading to a single event or outcome' - but it reflects the central theme running through the book, which is that of duality. I mean, it's really hard to miss. Crichton points out on numerous occasions how the protagonist and antagonist are mirror images of each other (at one point he even writes, 'He and Wright were well matched,' just in case you didn't grasp it the first time round). Both men are also named John, both are gifted chess players, both have similar mathematical backgrounds, both have to win at all costs, and so on and so on.

In fact, although the narrative takes the form of a running investigation the whole book's set out like a chess match, with Graves and Wright constantly trying to trip up the other without leaving himself open to psychological attack. As a result, one could say that there's very little actual physical action in the story, but you'll find you're too busy turning the pages to notice. Whatever his faults (generally lackluster characterization, for example), Crichton was a real master of the thriller genre and in this one he really manages to keep the pace up all the way to the end.

I'm writing this and I've only just realized I haven't yet touched on Crichton's use of the pseudonym, John Lange (lange is German for 'long' - Crichton was six-foot-eight), and it's worth a mention. Crichton wrote eight thrillers under the Lange pen name at the beginning of his career, of which this was the last. Printed in 1972, it acts as kind of a bridge between the more straightforward thrillers of old and the techno-thrillers he'd soon become famous for. (By this point, he'd already published 'The Andromeda Strain' under his own name to great acclaim, and the one after this would be the excellent but less popular 'The Terminal Man').

As a result, this one not only features more of a techno-flavoured storyline than previous Lange books, but Crichton also employs the method he used in 'The Andromeda Strain' of including official documentary 'evidence' to suggest the events he's writing about are based on something that actually happened (the very first words are, 'The facts were these:'). And why shouldn't he? After all, it's a great gimmick I'm sure many other writers of the time wished they'd thought of first.



* Throughout the story, Graves has a fairly antagonistic relationship with his immediate boss, who goes under the name of Phelps. Graves and Phelps. Fans of the classic Mission: Impossible TV series will need no further explanation of the relevance of these two names. A nice little tip of the hat there from the author, I thought, especially as the last act closely resembles a typical episode from the series.

** They also made a TV movie of the book called 'Pursuit.' Made in 1972, the 72-minute film stars Ben Gazzara as Graves and E.G. Marshall as Wright. I've only seen it once a long time ago and it isn't bad at all, although it's 'made-for-TV' elements are obvious and it lacks much of the excitement of the novel. However, it's notable for being the first film directed by the multi-talented Crichton himself, perhaps as a test run for the far more successful 'Westworld', which he wrote and directed the following year. For those wishing to seek it out, I believe it's currently available on DVD.



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