Ballantine, 1975, 281 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-39092-X
(A fair warning to readers: This Michael Crichton novel will be reviewed according to the Crichton Critical Paradigm #1 (encyclopedia novel), which should not be confused with the Crichton Critical Paradigm #2 (theme park novel, itself a sub-genre of CPP#1). Crichton novel written and read using CCP#1 are thinly fictionalized strings of anecdotes gleaned throughout a careful study of a given subject. Rather than write an encyclopedia entry about the subject, Crichton then turns his research into a novel, every potentially interesting nugget of information becoming a chapter of the novel. Other Crichton novels written using CCP#1 include Congo, Eaters of the Dead, Sphere, Airframe and Timeline. CCP#2 stories include Jurassic Park and Prey, as well as -obviously- WESTWORLD.)
Prisons, says Michael Crichton in his introduction to The Great Train Robbery, do not offer the ideal representation of the common criminal mind. For obvious reasons, prisons only bring together the criminals stupid enough to be caught, which is to say the least-competent criminals there are. True Criminality, he argues in a still-contentious essay, is not a matter of economic classes, innate evil or lack of intelligence. The Great Train Robbery of 1855 was in many ways an emblematic event, a watershed mark in our understanding of crime. It showed Victorian England that criminals could be smart, organized and rather likeable.
The novel that follows is a fictionalized version of the events surrounding the Robbery, assembled from historical records and court documents. But The Great Train Robbery is less of a story than a trip through time to Victorian England, with its peculiar mores and methods, to the very sources of today’s western society in the hopes that we may, through them, learn something about ourselves.
Certainly, 1855 London was a very different place, as Crichton takes pains to remind us at every chapter. The industrial age may have been running at full bore, but social attitudes were still adjusting to the new elements. From his high perch of 1974, Crichton feels free to comment on the Victorians (with what is often a strong authorial voice), and not-so-secretly delights in showing how little matters have evolved since then.
It all makes for truly interesting reading. At the exception of Eaters of the Dead, this is easily Crichton’s most stylish novel, and also one of his most enjoyable ones. The tone is a screaming delight, halfway between a Victorian pastiche and a modern well-informed pundit. It’s easy to be sucked into the world of the novel and let the crime story take a back-place to the description of the era. Through the Robbery, Crichton tries to capture a time and a place. It’s enough to make one wonder which of today’s event would best describe our world. Any takers for the challenge?
While critics (this one included) may have a lot of fun taking apart Crichton’s work for flaws real or imagined, this novel is a useful reminder that the man, from time to time, is capable of turning out excellent work. Granted, The Great Train Robbery is only slightly older than your reviewer, but it’s a slick piece of fiction, a recommended read even after a quarter of a century with the added dimension that Crichton’s then-commentary is itself becoming a curiously historical artefact in its own right…