A CASE OF NEED (1968) by Michael Crichton

Why doesn’t Michael Crichton (1942-2008) get more street cred as a crime writer? Is it because he was so commercially successful? Who needs respect when your books and movies make you a multimillionaire, right? But his absence from major genre histories  – including those by Ashley, Murphy, Symons and DeAndrea – does seem odd when comparable big sellers like Jack Higgins and Forsyth for example are both present. Granted, many of Crichton’s books, like The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, are SF but he wrote over a dozen mysteries and thrillers too – so what gives? To find out I’m looking at his early novels (now being reprinted as e-books) to see how they stand up – starting with A Case of Need, which won the Edgar in 1969.

I offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here; I also submit it as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“All surgeons are bastards …”

This was one of 10 books that Crichton published under various pseudonyms while still a medical student, so it’s not surprising that it has a hospital background. Crichton wrote in his spare time to help pay a few bills and also to ease his literary frustrations, cranking out paperback originals as by ‘John Lange’. A Case of Need though immediately stood out from his four previous potboilers and was the book that effectively marked his emergence as a popular author. After it won the Edgar for best novel in 1969 the movie Crichton-Case-of-Need-hbrights were soon snapped up (I’ll be reviewing the film version, The Carey Treatment, soon) and the author very quickly would become something of a pop culture phenomenon with the success of The Andromeda Strain. This medical thriller was  not originally published under the ‘Lange’ pseudonym though but as by ‘Jeffrey Hudson’, the name of the celebrated ‘dwarf jester’ at the court of King Charles I who was alleged to be barely 19 inches tall. This seemed a good disguise to Crichton, who was an imposing 6 feet 9 inches tall and was looking to keep his writing activities a secret from his conservative tutors (‘Lange’ of course means ‘tall’ in German).

“Morality must keep up with technology …”

A Case of Need sets out to impress with its confidence – Crichton was barely 25 when he wrote it but there is a lot of showing off in this highly entertaining novel. It is set during a hectic Monday to Friday in October (Crichton liked to emphasise specific time frames for his stories) and the story is narrated in the first person with a precision and exactitude bordering on the pedantic. There is a morass of detail on display everywhere, with medical terminology constantly being explained via asides, footnotes and editorial intervention (my favourite has a note from the editor explaining how a paragraph with the three easy steps on how to manufacture LSD in our own home has been omitted from the original MS). On top of this are such Crichton-Case-of-Need-pb2jpgabstruse notions as the type of cars and number plates being used by the plainclothes cops in the Boston narcotics squad for instance – daft but fascinating. For all its exaggerated emphasis on facts and figures the book boasts a strong plot, a bold theme and an unusual environment that does in fact reasonably allow its callow author plenty of scope to share his knowledge – indeed, there are dozens of footnotes for example and after the book is over Crichton provides several appendices to sound off on all sorts of topics. Set in the ‘Lincoln Hospital’ in Boston, this book tackled the hot topic of abortion in the years before the Roe v. Wade decision. Art Lee has been arrested for causing the death of a young girl who apparently wanted an abortion.

“You’re forgetting the way it works. J.D. is a big man. J.D. lost a daughter. There happens to be a convenient Chinaman in the neighborhood, who is known to do the nasty deed. A perfect situation”

Crichton-Case-of-Need-signetHis friend, pathologist John Berry, sets out to prove his innocence. This is for three reasons – firstly, because he is sure he is innocent since Lee is too good a surgeon to have botched the job so badly; secondly, because the girl was the daughter of a prominent medical family and he feels that Lee has simply been picked as the fall guy due to an old grudge; and three, because Lee actually does perform abortions but with Berry’s help so if the doctor is indicted, then most likely so will he. As Berry looks into the girl’s background he discovers that she hated her family, had been experimenting with drugs and, most peculiar of all, that the medical evidence suggests that she was not pregnant at the time of her death. So what caused all the blood loss? And why had she put on weight and had unexpected body hair growth too?

“… he said something very interesting: that one reason abortion remained illegal was because it was so safe”

The book does suffer from a surfeit of characters, even to the extent that when a villain is revealed in the final pages I had trouble remembering quite who he was. On the other hand what we get is a lively and very credible-seeming depiction of the medical community in Boston circa 1968 with all kinds of arcane medical information thrown in for free as we follow Berry’s investigation to its reasonably satisfying conclusion. There is some humour too (unusual in Crichton to be honest) while he ably resists the temptation to tie up all the loose ends at the end, respecting the seriousness of his theme even though the resolution ultimately proves to be linked to a secondary plot about drug smuggling. A really solid mystery that, 45 years later, is still current in its subject matter – no mean feat.

The Michael Crichton mysteries & thrillers:

  • 1966 – Odds On as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1967 – Scratch One as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1968 – Easy Go [aka The Last Tomb) as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1968 – Crichton-Grave-Descend-hccA Case of Need as by ‘Jeffrey Hudson’
  • 1969 – Zero Cool as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1969 – The Venom Business as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1970 – Dealing (co-written with Douglas Crichton) as by ‘Michael Douglas’
  • 1970 – Drug of Choice [aka Overkillas by ‘John Lange’
  • 1970 – Grave Descend as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1972 – Binary as by ‘John Lange’
  • 1975 – The Great Train Robbery
  • 1992 – Rising Sun
  • 1994 – Disclosure
  • 1996 – Airframe
  • 2004 – State of Fear

A Case of Need was filmed by Blake Edwards as The Carey Treatment in 1972 starring James Coburn – a review of this fairly loose adaptation will follow shortly.

Open Road Media are republishing all ten of Crichton’s early potboilers from what they term his ‘Med School Years’ as e-books at the end of July. For further information, visit their homepage at: www.openroadmedia.com/michael-crichton

For those interested in find out more about Crichton’s life and work, they should visit his official homepage: www.michaelcrichton.net

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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37 Responses to A CASE OF NEED (1968) by Michael Crichton

  1. Sergio – A thoughtful, detailed and well-written review, for which thanks. I agree that this one is a good example to show that Crichton could write a crime novel. There are some aspects of it that seem a little ‘clunky’ by today’s standards but no matter; it highlights life at that time in that place. I think it raises an interesting dilemma too. I can’t disagree with you about the number of characters, but I do believe the story’s credible.

    • Thanks very much Margot – having seen the movie first and only then reading the book, I was surprised how fresh it seemed but then the plot was greatly changed. Crichton’s voice comes through very clearly and yes, it’s dated, but a lot less than I had anticipated. A good read …

  2. le0pard13 says:

    I heard about this one, having seen The Carey Treatment when it first came out and looked it up years later. I should look it up. Look forward to your review of Blake Edwards’ production, Sergio.

  3. Colin says:

    Good piece, as usual, Sergio. I haven’t read a lot of Crichton’s work, being more familiar with the various film adaptations. I do have two of his John Lange efforts from Hard Case Crime – Grave Descend, which you’ve illustrated above, and Zero Cool. I haven’t gotten round to reading either though.
    Coincidentally, I did read some non-crime Crichton recently. It was Pirate Latitudes, a posthumous publication, which is actually a poorly written novel, more like a treatment for a film script to be honest.

    • Thanks Colin – well, you’re right there, I think after Congo and Sphere they often felt like a lot of later Alistair MacLean novels, prose versions of screenplays. I hope to review Zero Cool fairly soon but first I’m doing his final ‘John Lange’ book, Binary. It’s amazing how little of Need is used in Carey Treatment, which i am reviewing as soon as I find the box with the DVD in it!

      • Colin says:

        Good luck with the search of the boxes – almost like a new purchase when you finally lay your hands on stuff in those circumstances!

        • Thanks mate – not only that but trying to figure out where to find space for itand decide what goes into the loft ghetto and what gets pride of place when the hoi polloi come to visit!

  4. neer says:

    I lost interest in Michael Crichton after reading Rising Sun which I thought had a shade too much Japanese-bashing. However, I had no idea he had written books under various pseudonyms. Thanks for letting us know. Would try to find these books.

    • Thanks Neer – RISING SUN is a classic example of a later book that seems designed to push some buttons and get made as a movie (even the main character is named after Sean Connery (who crichton worked with in the 70s) and who did play the part in the interesting but deeply flawed movie adaptation.

  5. westwoodrich says:

    Likewise I had no idea he was a crime writer (and I’d probably never have found out, based on A CASE OF NEED’s multiple uninspiring designs…), so thanks for the review Sergio. I’ll keep an eye out for Jeffery Hudson.

    • Thanks Rich – yes, I know what you mean abotu the covers! There was only the one Hudson book and now of course it is always replublished as by Crichton. Some reviews of ‘John Lange’ books coming soon which I hope will be of interest.

  6. I’m one who didn’t know Crichton wrote crime. An interesting post and a choice of books to be placed on the TBR list.

  7. Like you, I’ve been a fan of Michael Crichton’s work for decades. The early crime novels are a bit rough, but Crichton was just learning his craft. Crichton’s later works displayed originality and cleverness. They’re well worth reading.

  8. John says:

    I like those John Lange books, especially GRAVE DESCEND with all the scuba diving info. Those books are pulpy and inspired by action movies, but very entertaining and often suspenseful. What still blows me away about Crichton: How on earth did he find the time to write novels in med school? And ten novels!

    • I know – they guy’s stamina was incredible! When I get home in the evenings sometimes I barely have the energy to read, let alone do something creative! And you’ve got to be in your twenties really …

  9. Todd Mason says:

    Sometimes it’s easier to blow off classes in med school than you might think (I speak from secondhand/close observation), but the rotations can certainly take it out or you, in the latter half (but, then again, when you’re posted in the boonies, often there’s little else to do and perhaps even less in the late ’60s boonies than there would be now).

    You reverse yourself a little here, Sergio, segregating this one from the potboilers at one point and relumping it in at another, but as an Edgar winner, the lack of concern given it by the CF scholars is a bit puzzling. It’s amusing the kind of trouble Crichton kept stumbling into, however retroactively, with his pseuds…John Lange being the real name of the “John Norman” of the GOR novels and their lifestyle cult following, and Michael Douglas appearing in at least one of the films based on his books…there was even an aspiring though barely published sf writer in the 1970s named Jeffrey S. Hudson, no doubt using the S. so no one would assume he had a Poe statue on his mantel.

    You have convinced me to give a Crichton novel a chance, here…no small feat. Good luck with the settling in!

    • Thanks for all that Todd – my main problem at the mo is the complete lack of Internet for at ;east another week so response times are definitely a tad on the slow side here! Well, I suppose I was lumping the pulp fiction under a more general crime and mystery label …

  10. I’d suggest “The Great Train Robbery” as a different Crichton work: it’s almost true crime and it’s non-medical. Of interest, despite graduating from medical school and writing a bunch of medical thrillers, he never actually practiced medicine.

    • Thanks David – I’m posting a review of Train Robbery shortly in fact. I think Crichton’s area was always research, right? I don’t agree with a lot of his ideas but an amazing person all the same.

  11. Excellent choice, Sergio! I enjoy reading Crichton for both his style and substance. I think he is one of the few authors like Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins whose books have been turned into successful films. There is immense variety in his fiction. His stories are gripping. The first Crichton movel I read was DISCLOSURE which was way better than the film version. Thanks for taking us through his pseudonyms and crime and thriller work.

    • Thanks Prashant – oddly I enjoyed Disclosure the movie because it made the male protagonist so much weaker than all the women around him (villainous or not) but it is otherwise pretty sluggish, I admit.

  12. TracyK says:

    I have read Jurassic Park (when my son was very young so probably read it together) and I enjoyed it. Also The Great Train Robbery, which my husband introduced me to. Which I loved. Now you have convinced me I should be on the lookout for the John Lange novels. Thanks very much for this very interesting post.

  13. Skywatcher says:

    I’m going to try and track these early books down. I enjoyed a lot of Crichton’s stuff, and believe that he was a far more talented and influential writer than some of his critics contend. I’m pleased that you’re doing a post about FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, as, like a number of other people here, I’m a great fan of the book.

  14. Sergio, an excellent pick and review. I loved the way Crichton wrote. In terms of story ideas, he was ahead of many of his peers. Most of his books that I have read so far, including DISCLOSURE, were gripping, both in style and substance. There is a lot of variety in his writing. Thanks for mentioning his pseudonymous work which I hadn’t noticed previously. I think Crichton was one of the three most non-series successful writers (the other two being Jack Higgins and Alistair MacLean) whose novels were made into equally successful films. I have his AIRFRAME and hope to read it soon.

    • Thanks Prashant – and apologies for my occasional slowness in response – for some reason I am having to retrieve your comments from the spam folder at the moment, no idea why that has started happening all of a sudden!

  15. Sergio, this is not your fault at all! I didn’t realise my comment the first time around got published. I posted it from my new tablet and something happened while I was doing so. I thought it didn’t make its way here (not that I bothered to check!) and re-posted it yesterday. My sincere apologies for the goof-up. Please feel free to delete the first comment.

    • No, not you at all Prashant, WordPress decided it didn’t recognise your tablet so it didn’t publish it until I took it out of snap – thanks very much for the comments, even in duplicate!

  16. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere, July 2013 | Past Offences

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  18. DoingDewey says:

    I love Michael Crichton, but I had no idea he’d written so many mysteries! I’m more of a sci-fi buff and love his latest books best, since the deal with cutting edge science that I find fascinating. The Great Train Robbery is definitely up there on my list of favorite books he wrote, but other than that, I haven’t read any of the mysteries you mention. This one sounds really interesting though and, even with the many footnotes, it sounds like it could deliver the intelligence and suspense I like in his sci-fi :)

    • Thanks very much Katie – I was amazed to see just how many people rate Great Train Robbery among their favourites – now that the early books are available as e-books and in print through HCC it seemed like a good opportunity to reassess though they are clearly pulp for the most part (especially the Lange books). The techn-thriller is what he’ll be remembered for and quite rightly, I agree.

  19. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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