Friday, September 13, 2013

THE LAST TOMB by John Lange (Michael Crichton)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Michael Crichton published eight thrillers under the pseudonym John Lange.  The Lange novels are something very different than the science fiction Michael Crichton became famous for writing.  They are thrillers more in the vein of Desmond Bagley, early Jack Higgins, and Gavin Lyall, and I like them much more than Crichton’s big bestsellers.

Harold Barnaby is an Egyptologist in an age when nothing new or interesting is happening in the field.  His specialty is hieroglyphics, and while translating a text he discovers a reference to the tomb of an obscure Pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings.  In earlier years Barnaby dreamed of the glory of discovering an Egyptian tomb, but now, at the age of 41, he is less interested in glory and more interested in wealth.  He approaches a freelance writer named Robert Pierce with an ambitious plan to loot the tomb, which he estimates to be worth, in 1968 dollars, $50 million.
The novel is written in third person, and is structured in three titled acts—The Plan, The Search, and The Last Tomb.  The scene titles are self-descriptive.  The Plan introduces the genesis of the idea, the plan, and the compilation of the team.  The team arrives in Egypt in the second act, and the third act is the resolution.
The Last Tomb is all story.  It opens with a flash, and it races from the first page to the last.  The setting is surprisingly rich, and provides, in stark prose, the sounds, smells, and sights of the land—
“The land was flat, desolate, windy; there was no vegetation, no sign of life.”

“The modern traveler’s first view of Egypt is appropriate: Cairo airport, set out in the flat, brown sand of the desert stretching away in silent heat for miles.  It is a landscape that communicates, quite distinctly, a sense of agelessness, unchanging, interminable.”

“The villages were all the same—mud huts, dusty streets, and date-palm trees, stately camels and barking, hungry dogs.”
The Last Tomb is a thriller as thrillers were meant to be.  It is quick, light, and entertaining as hell.  There isn’t the slightest bit of character development, but it is populated with an exotic group of characters.  There is the wealthy British nobleman financing the operation on a whim who travels with, at a minimum, two young ladies, there is the smuggler, and the thief.  It is exciting, and with just enough of a twist at the end to bring a smile.

The Last Tomb was published by Bantam in 1974.  It was originally published as Easy Go by Signet in 1968, and it is scheduled to be reissued as Easy Go by Hard Case Crime later this year.  It was Michael Crichton’s third published novel, and it is among the best, behind only Binary, of the John Lange titles.

The forthcoming Hard Case Crime edition, which will be published as Michael Crichton for the first time, has artwork strikingly similar to the old suspense novel Valley of the Assassins by Ian MacAlister.


1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

I agree. All the Lange books are fun. So is the MacAllister book, for that matter.