Michael Crichton’s “The Great Train Robbery”
By Jeff Salter
Before I launch into my review of this particular title, let me say a word or two about the late Michael Crichton — author, screenwriter, and director. In addition to being a medical doctor, Crichton gave us some of the most iconic plots and characters the world of fiction and movie-going has ever known.
To the best of my recollection, I’ve only read two of his novels: Jurassic Park, which I thoroughly enjoyed (though I read it after seeing the film), and Congo, which I thought was only a fair novel. Of his non-fiction, I’ve read only the title I’m highlighting here today.
But it’s Crichton’s novels brought to film – either by others (as in the Andromeda Strain) or by himself as screenwriter (as in Twister, Runaway, WestWorld, and others) that stand out for me. For some of those, he was also the director of the movie. I’ve not read any of those novels, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all three films, which he directed and wrote for the screen. I also enjoyed the film Coma — originally written by Robin Cook, but the screenplay and direction was by Crichton. He co-wrote the screenplay for Twister with his wife at that time, Anne-Marie Martin. I also enjoyed the movie, Rising Sun which was adapted for the screen (by someone else) from Crichton’s novel.
Among the many things I did not realize about this wildly creative individual — Crichton was the creator and an executive producer of the television drama “ER” based on his 1974 pilot script “24 Hours.”
The Great Train Robbery
I have actually seen the film based on this novel, but that viewing was so long ago that I remember only that it had Sean Connery on a train in Great Britain. LOL.
Published in 1975, this title appeared fairly early in Crichton’s writing career, shortly after he first began releasing fiction under his own name.
In 1975, Crichton ventured into the nineteenth century with his historical novel The Great Train Robbery, which would become a bestseller. The novel is a recreation of the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, a massive gold heist, which takes place on a train traveling through Victorian era England. A considerable portion of the book was set in London. Crichton had become aware of the story when lecturing at Cambridge University. He later read the transcripts of the court trial and started researching the historical period.
While reading this captivating story, it’s easy to forget it’s not – in the strictest sense – a novel. No, this event actually happened, over the course of almost a full year of planning and execution, with the robbery itself taking place in May 1855. Why do I say it’s not a novel? Unlike most “historical novels” in which the author has to assume or invent most or all of the dialog, a significant amount of the dialog of this rendition comes directly from the London court transcripts of the primary thief – Edward Pierce – and his several accomplices.
And that dialog is indeed salty. Filled with colloquialism of the so-called “lower” classes – in a Victorian society which was extremely class-conscious – some of the testimony and explanations by trial witnesses had to be TRANSLATED for the benefit of the upper crust judges and/or attorneys. Fortunately for us – the readers – Crichton weaves in enough clarifications along the way that we usually know what these real-life individuals mean… though you have to pay attention or you may get lost.
Among the eye-openers in reading this account is to learn so much about the various classes of Victorian society and how horrifyingly callous was the treatment of the lower classes… especially women and children.
What Crichton has done quite effectively – and excitingly – in this riveting text is keep us in suspense as to whether Edward Pierce and his accomplices will actually do the deed (rob the train of 12,000 British pounds in gold) and get away with it. Somewhere in the backs of our minds, we’re thinking – perhaps hoping – that they won’t get caught… even while we’re reading quotes from the actual trial transcripts. It’s a brilliant balancing act which I don’t recall seeing in any other author’s work (that I’ve read).
The real Pierce was not only a master of disguises, able to pass himself off as a member of the upper class, and a meticulous planner — but he was a ruthless criminal who tolerated no breach of confidence.
[JLS # 476]