Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Michael Crichton: The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery was the first Michael Crichton book I ever read. In some ways that probably helps explain why it was eighteen years before I read another. Before re-reading it this summer, I remember almost nothing. About all I could tell you was that some folks robbed a train, and that at some point in the preparations a boy was sent through a small window to let other conspirators through a door.

The book deals with what the Victorians described as “The Crime of the Century”, or The Great Train Robbery” of 1855 in England. The time was very different than what we see today. Nothing moved faster than a train. Safes were mostly invulnerable. Dynamite and nitro-glycerin had not been invented. Steel was stronger that gunpowder. There were no high-speed drills or combination locks. The only way into a safe required a key, or keys. Victorian society was very stratified. Upper and lower classes did not mix. New social attitudes held that crime was a function of poverty, therefore it was inconceivable that a gentleman would commit a crime.

Within this environment we meet the apparent gentleman, Edward Pierce. He is interested in stealing the gold being shipped by rail to fund the payroll of British troops fighting in the Crimean War. As he explained it, “I wanted the money.” To succeed he needs access to the safe on the moving train. More importantly, he needs copies of the four keys required to open the safe. Most of the book details the year he and his confederates spent preparing for the crime.

The books main asset is also its main detraction. Every step of the way is described in archaic Victorian criminal jargon. Pierce is planning a “ream flash pull”. Some of the key players are the “putter-up”, the “screwsman”, and the “snakeman”. To gain access to one of the keys, they executed a “carriage fakement”, with the aid of a “crow” and a “stall”. All these terms are explained when first used, but not always when they reappear.

We get a very realistic picture of Victorian England. The language really imparts a sense of the times. The crime is intellectually challenging and well executed. Contingencies appear, and are overcome. We know from early in the book that Pierce will get the money, bit also will go to trial. But unless you are already an expert on the historical events, the book still holds surprises to the end.

The Great Train Robbery is not as ‘edge of your seat” captivating as many of Crichton’s other novels. But it is intriguing in its own way. I think I appreciate it more now, with my more mature tastes, than I did on the first read.

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