Friday, May 09, 2014

Grave Descend: Suspense at its most efficient

Grave Descend reads as if it were written in urgent, economical haste, the sort of thing a post-doctoral fellow in medicine might squeeze in among lab sessions and clinical rounds. And that’s a good thing.

Michael Crichton was, indeed, studying medicine when he wrote the novel around 1970 under the name John Lange, and he was so loath to waste words and time that he cut straight to the cliffhangers and surprising set-ups. Descriptions are brief. Placed in pain and peril, the protagonist, a salvage diver named McGregor, simply and efficiently works his way out of them without narrative hyperventilation about what will happen if he fails. Nothing about extra-terrestrial micro-organisms or dinosaur DNA here.

 The plot is simple and its narrative engine simpler: McGregor, who lives and works in Jamaica, is hired to retrieve something from a sunken boat, and nothing is what it seems. Crichton followed the plan strictly, and every deviation from the expected is one more cliff-hanger, one more suspense-builder, one more reason to make the reader keep turning the pages. And then, when Crichton decided it was time to end the story, he threw in a coda that, if arbitrary, is plausible and even a bit shiver-inducing.  Grave Descend is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours, and its stripped-down mechanics probably make it a worthwhile textbook for writing suspense.

 *
 Grave Descend is one of two early Crichton novels Hard Case published some years ago under the John Lange name. It has now reissued all eight Lange books under the author’s real name, credited to “Michael Crichton writing as John Lange.” Read a sample of Grave Descend on the Hard Case Web site, where you will also find samples of all the publisher's books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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13 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I can only imagine the terrible set of circumstances that wd need to befall me before I pick up a Michael Crichton novel. Some sort of hostage or kidnap situation, perhaps? Nervously waiting for results outside an oncologists office? Scanning the shelves of an Indonesian Prison library cart for something, anything written in English...

May 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may lead a life only marginally less fulfilling if you never read this book. But I bet you would find it very different from what you expect when you see the Crichton name on a cover. I did.

May 09, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I've got a soft spot for Crichton. I picked up The Andromeda Strain when I was about 12 or 13, and it was the first work of adult fiction I'd read. It knocked my socks off and ended my appetite for the Hardy Boys and things of that ilk. So I have to thank Crichton for providing the gateway drug for more sophisticated reading material. I actually got my son to read it at the same age and it had the same effect on him. Crichton was far from a great writer, but for the right reader at the right age he was a revelation.

May 09, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, since you're an old Crichtonian, I'd be especially curious about what you'd make of Grave Descend, so different not only from my idea of Crichton's sprawling techno-scientific thrillers, but also, I think, from the other John Lange books.

May 10, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I haven't ever read Crichton, though I've seen a movie or two made from his work. I hadn't rated him very high, but then listened to a podcast with Rick Kleffel and Alan Cheuse, neither of whom are literary slouches, doing a retrospective on him and they both had similar feelings about early influences. It's actually quite interesting if you want to listen it. It's short.

https://player.fm/series/rick-kleffel-agony-column/784-three-books-with-alan-cheuse

May 10, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I don't know those guys, but I'll give the podcast a listen. (Hmm, I should look for Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards' podcasts again).

I had even less experience with Crichton than you did, but my idea of him tallies nicely with a blurb from Steven Spielberg that Hard Case includes with Grave Descend:

"He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts."

That is precisely what Grave Descend is not.

May 10, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

They are both do some NPR stuff, and Rick does a local radio book review here as well. I think what stands out in the interview is Crichton's status as an innovator, perhaps more than as a writer. Also he definitely sounds like he had the Midas touch.

May 10, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose I'd have guessed he was an innovator in the matter of bio-thrillers. (His Wikipedia article says he plagiarized a George Orwell when he was a student. I suspect if he were still alive, this issue would have come up more.)

I flipped through one of the other John Lange novels issued by Hard Case and found it less refreshingly different than Grave Descend. But based on G.D., I can't sell him short as a writer. I'm less interested in why he had the Midas touch than I am that he could do something different from what he is known best for. I have to respect him for that.

Perhaps that podcast will get me through my late-shift doldrums this evening.

May 10, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think the idea was more that he was an innovator across fields.

The plagiarism account is interesting--if it's too be believed he did it as a test of a particular teacher's grading system rather than a way to get out of work. At least he shows good taste in choosing Orwell.

May 10, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

His mind ranged fairly widely, I'd say, and he appears to have been able to concentrate on the matter at hand, even if if he did hold some odd beliefs. And how could the professor have given him a B- rather than flunking him for the plagiarism?

May 10, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

As it happens we had a copy of Grave Descend in our office here at the library so I gave it a quick read and a review. It's actually than some of his later works, which get bogged down in geeky asides on science and technology.

May 14, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did you mean that Grave Descend is actually better than some of his later works, because unbowed down with geeky asides? No surprise there; I had a feeling that was the case, though I have not read his alter books.

I took a quick glance at your review, and I think you're right about the bad guy. He's over the top in a way that is not quite of a piece with the rest of the book.

May 14, 2014  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Oops. Yes, I meant to say "better."

May 14, 2014  

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