Monday, July 27, 2009

BINARY by John Lange

Michael Crichton was an immensely talented man. His creative work spanned five decades. His first novel, Odds On, was published as a paperback original in 1966 and his final novel—left partially completed at his death—is scheduled for release in 2010. He also wrote and directed films for both Hollywood and television, including Westworld, Coma, Twister and ER.

In the late-1960s and early-1970s Mr Crichton wrote eight slim thrillers under the pseudonym John Lange. The novels were published between 1966 and 1972, and each was competent, exciting and different. Two of these early “John Lange” novels were recently republished by Hard Case Crime and can easily be found, but the other six are more difficult and can fetch princely sums on the secondary market.

I recently read Binary for the second time and I was absolutely blown away. It is different from the two titles HCC republished, in that it is not a straight forward suspense adventure novel, but rather a kind of rare hybrid suspense high-tech whodunit. It harkens more to the fiction Crichton became famous for—The Andromeda Strain, et al—as it contains a flavor of science and technology; explained in simple and easily understood terminology without ever letting the pace slacken or the mystery suffer.

John Graves is a long-time investigator for the Intelligence Division of the State Department. He began his career in the foreign branch of Intelligence, but he has since been transferred to the domestic side—a change he does not approve of, or much enjoy. He stays with the agency less out of loyalty and enjoyment than trajectory. He does it simply because that is what he does.

On the night of August 22, 1972 seven armed men rob a U.S. Army train with a deadly chemical agent aboard; they make-off with ½-ton of the ZV agent. It is a deadly chemical that is without equal in its potency and practicality to cause death. The State Department has information that the chemical is going to be used in an attack on the Republican National Convention at San Diego.

A wealthy Howard Hughes-type—John Wright—is the suspect and John Graves is the lead investigator. The two men—hero and villain—spar in an unconventional manner. It is more of a chess match than a hardboiled investigation as each man tries to outwit the other move by move. There are more than a few intentionally placed red herrings, and Graves must decipher the riddle, and outthink his opponent or more than one million people will die.

Binary was the last novel Michael Crichton wrote as by John Lange and it is a perfect ending for the nom de plume. It is a quick and fast-paced novel. The action takes place over a 12-hour period and it snakes from meeting rooms to the warm August streets of San Diego. It is a strange mixture of a whodunit puzzle, and Crichton parcels out the clues as the novel moves along, with a hard-nosed American suspense novel.

The prose is simple and effective—“In a corner of the bedroom draped over a chair was a sports coat. He found a ticket for the noon plane to Acapulco in the pocket. A first-class ticket, one-way.” It feels almost invisible and never once gets in the way of the story and action.

The setting is easily shaped into a believable place—Crichton alternately praises and whips—mostly whips—California. It is a young and irresponsible place that is too hot and lacks any sort of class.

“The Westgate Plaza was one of the three greatest hotels in the world, if you believed Esquire magazine. If you didn’t, it was a pretentious modern dump decorated with a lot of phony statuary in the lobby and downstairs lounge.”

The dialogue is well shaped and the characters are molded perfectly into the story—there is the villain’s beautiful but dumb girlfriend, and Graves is forced to deal with a micro-managing and very dull supervisor. His team is competent, but not so much that you would notice.

The ending isn't a surprise, as far as the action is concerned, but the manner in which it plays out is very much a shock. In the end, it is the mystery, or the puzzle portion of the climax, that makes Binary work. And it works very, very well.

A NOTE. Binary was published in 1972 and it was made into a television movie that was directed by Michael Crichton titled Pursuit. The screenplay was written by Robert Dozier. It starred Ben Gazzara, and E.G. Marshall. It aired, according to IMDB, December 12, 1972.


Ed Gorman said...

I was disappointed with the film, Ben. Maybe it was just my mood. I'd really liked the book so I gambled ten bucks and Amazoned the TV movie. And that's the problem. It's definitely TV with all the shortcuts. If you'd like to see it I'd be glad to send it to you. You may like it more than I did.

Pericles said...

I really liked Crichton when he was Crichton, but I had a special fondness for Lange. Those books were like sports cars, sleek, stylish, and built to move.

Although ZERO COOL is my favorite, BINARY probably has the most propulsive narrative of the Lange novels. It was a worthy finale.

Thanks for mentioning these books. I'd hate to have them forgotten, like so many others.