Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hard Case Crime Releases All of Michael Crichton's "John Lange" Novels (Reviews of Grave Descend and Zero Cool)

In 2006 and 2008, respectively, Hard Case Crime (during its relationship with Dorchester Publications) rereleased Grave Descend and Zero Cool, two novels written by author Michael Crichton to support him during medical school. Despite their quality, being a medical student, Crichton published them under a pseudonym, "John Lange." (Another pseudonymous Crichton novel written during the same period, A Case of Need by "Jeffery Hudson," even won an Edgar Award.)

Part of the deal was that they be reprinted under the Lange pseudonym, with no Crichton-related publicity involved whatsoever. The information was hardly secret, though, the Internet being how it is. For example, there was a list of Lange novels prominently placed on Crichton's Wikipedia page. And fans of the author had known of the pseudonymous works for quite some time.

Still, the deal was struck, and the two novels saw the light of day, two years apart, for the first time in nearly forty years. Now, after Crichton's passing, and well into Hard Case Crime's new iteration with Titan Publications, all of the John Lange novels are being released with Crichton's name on the cover, and with new paintings commissioned from cover artists Glen Orbik and Gregory Manchess.

I have not read all of the books, but here, slightly edited for length, are the original reviews I wrote back then for Grave Descend and Zero Cool.

"Every story was different, and they were all, to his ears, improbable. But not like the Grave Descend. That was not merely improbable; it was weird. Even the name of the ship was weird." — from Grave Descend

Author John Lange is actually the pseudonym of a massively bestselling author whose name you would instantly recognize if I chose to reveal it. Hard Case Crime, seeing the first reprints of Lange's books since their original publications, would like us to respect his privacy, but as we all know, there are no secrets on the Internet, and his identity is only as far away as a single click.

Coincidentally, John Lange was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Grave Descend. The author actually won the Edgar for another novel he wrote around the same time under a different pseudonym. (He has also won one under his own name, but not for a novel.)

Jim McGregor, a diver by occupation, is hired to investigate the sinking of the Grave Descend, a luxury yacht with an unlikely moniker (it's actually a quote from Samuel Johnson, the source of all the epigraphs in the book), off the coast of Jamaica. The main trouble is that McGregor can't seem to get a straight series of events surrounding the sinking — everyone has a different take on what happened, even where the boat went through customs.

To make things more difficult, the sinking is being kept from the press for 24 hours due to the presence of the boat's single passenger, Monica Grant, who is not only striking beautiful (especially in a bikini) but is also the "good friend" of the boat's married owner, Robert Wayne. McGregor discovers a few other details while involved with this mysterious crew, and begins to piece together a puzzle that's got his name written all over it.

John Lange offers up a straightforward, taut thriller with no frills but more than a little John D. MacDonald in its pedigree. The use of short chapters and sharp dialogue make the relatively complicated plot flow easily and quickly toward its conclusion. A slight but entertaining piece of escapism, Grave Descend is completely engrossing during the reading but doesn't leave much behind in its wake. (See what I did there?) I finished it in just a couple of hours and I don't imagine it took Lange much longer. Fans of MacDonald and Richard Stark could do worse than to take a short cruise aboard the Grave Descend. Just watch out for those hammerheads.

If you do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

If you refuse to do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

What's a vacationing radiologist to do? Dr. Peter Ross is going to find himself very busy over the next few days, involved with so many people, he'll be lucky to make it in time for the radiologists' convention.

Zero Cool is the second John Lange novel (after Grave Descend) to be revived by Hard Case Crime, but it was published first originally. It is also, I think, the better-written and more entertaining of the two.

John Lange was the pseudonym for an author who later became a huge best-seller under his own name. I'll hint by saying he's an "admirable" sort of fellow (unless that's a reference too dated for modern readers), but a quick Google search will reveal all.

Events in Zero Cool pile on one another in an almost improvisatory fashion, as if Lange were simply taking dictation from a compulsive liar with A.D.D. The seemingly unplanned nature of it, however, meant I was unable to predict much of what happened.

Ross hops from Spain to France and back again, mostly against his will, all the while leaving behind what must be the world's most tolerant (and trusting!) girlfriend, a woman he only met days ago on the beach (portrayed in Gregory Manchess's cover painting by model Meredith Napolitano, who is cleverly shown reading a copy of Grave Descend.)

It's a lot of fun. It's not the best-written book in the world, but its classic pulp adventure–inspired origins shine through brightly, with at least three occurrences of "And then it happened." But the fact that the author added new material for this reprinting makes it just that much more special. The new pieces, a prologue and epilogue that bring the action into the current day, make Zero Cool feel like a new book, even though it's over 40 years old. If you like Grave Descend and Zero Cool, be sure to check out the rest: Odds On, Scratch One, Easy Go (AKA The Last Tomb), The Venom Business, Drug of Choice, and Binary.

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