BINARY (1972) by Michael Crichton

Lange-Binary-pan2This proved to be the last of the books Michael Crichton published under his ‘John Lange’ pseudonym as his secret identity was pretty much blown by then. After his mutating virus bestseller The Andromeda Strain and the Edgar-winning medical mystery A Case of Need were optioned for the movies, Crichton used Binary, a ticking-clock thriller about a nerve gas attack, to make the transition into directing. I’ll get to that soon but first came the word …

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

“Graves stared at the men round the table. There were times, he thought, when working for the government was an exercise in total stupidity”

Crichton’s theme, more often than not, was the breakdown of complex systems, whether the fun fairs in Westworld and Jurassic Park where the attractions start attacking the customers; or the underground laboratory in Andromeda where the security system starts behaving like an organism that decides that the scientists working there are an infection and singled out for extermination. In Binary Crichton takes a dualistic approach, as the title would suggest, in which opposing systems are squared off against each other, with combustible results. John Graves is an American agent keeping tabs on John Wright, a right-wing tycoon hellbent on bringing down President Nixon (this was shortly before Watergate). Graves however is no fan of his government either:

“During his fifteen years in the government, slowly and imperceptibly his enemy had shifted from the Big Bear, the Russkies, the Reds, the ChiComs – to is fellow Americans. That was his job now, and he hated it.”

img-binary_131610950088Bookended by a prologue and epilogue presented in the form of reports (as per Andromeda – a somewhat colourless but undeniably very concise and efficient way to relay plot and character information), all the action otherwise takes place during twelve hours on 23 August 1972. There are twelve chapters, one for each hour, and each one counts down to 5PM – zero hour. The setting is San Diego on the day of the Republican Convention and the President is due for a visit. Wright it seems has something nasty and deadly planned for the leader of the free world – but what? He meets mobsters and recruits mercenaries and also ex-members of the government with specialised knowledge of electronics. Crichton’s well-known fascination with computers comes into play here as we get lots of details on how such machines used to work forty years ago, which is fascinating and scarily doesn’t seem to have changed, in essence, a very great deal. It’s still a question of tapping a phone line, dialing in, and knowing the right passwords as used by the Intelligence community.

“But we have him, we know the plot, we know how’s it’s going together -“
“We may not be able to stop it,” Graves said.

Wright engineers a tap to access two parcels of ultra secret government information: the route of a train transporting a deadly gas, and Graves’ psychological profile.  Graves and his boss Phelps (one suspects Crichton had been watching Mission: Impossible on TV at the time where Peter Graves played ‘Mr Phelps’ …) follow Wright as he makes a variety of mysterious purchases – scuba equipment, paint, plastic containers, metal tubing, and even an ancient washing machine – what’s he up to?

“Not only is he on to me,” Graves said, “he’s showing me a puzzle and daring me to work it out”

Lange-Crichton-Binary-japanVery quickly this lean and muscular suspense yarn develops into a battle of intellects with Wright doing his best to outwit Graves and devise a trap that in fact will only work if his antagonist behaves according to his profile. It’s a classic Holmes vs Moriarty confrontation, pitting a rich madman against an anti-authoritarian but faithful servant of the crown (sic) but brought up-to-date with new fangled technology, an emphasis on psychological profiling and new strains of deadly toxins. It all leads up to an extended bomb disposal sequence that could see the entire city go up in smoke. We may have read this all before but Crichton does it with great energy and with the tautness that we associate with the slickest of genre material.

In many ways this is a suspense yarn in which everything has been reduced to its barest essentials, with two opposing elements in constant state of imbalance right to the explosive finale. The protagonist and antagonist are perfectly matched because they are so similar with identical intelligence quotients but separated by the tiniest sliver of morality. In much the same way the central gimmick of the story revolves around a gas that only becomes deadly when combined with its twin element. Topped with its literal ticking clock and the visit of the President and what you have is a prototypical bit of pulp – and a highly entertaining one at that.

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’Crichton-Drug-of-Choice-pb
  • 1968 – A 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

My review of Crichton’s own screen adaptation of this novel, retitled Pursuit, starring the late, great Ben Gazzara, will follow next Tuesday.

Open Road Media are republishing all ten of Crichton’s early potboilers from what they term ‘The Med School Years’ as e-books at the end of July. For further information about their new edition of Binary and the other titles, visit their homepage at: www.openroadmedia.com/binary

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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26 Responses to BINARY (1972) by Michael Crichton

  1. Colin says:

    Certainly sounds like a slick piece of pulp writing. And those ebooks, which I’m generally not a fan of, are something I might consider – for space saving purposes if nothing else.

    • And I think they have done rather a nice job with them with a nice new intro too. A Case of Need is probably my favourite theough (which reminds me, review of The Carey Treatment is coming – greatly altered the book though …). I’m doing a couple more Crichtons over the next few weeks though in the case of Zero Cool I’ll be relying on the Hard Case Crime reprint (still don’t have an e-reader) – I do like HCC and will be reviewing Joyland, their new Stephen King book, fairly soon too.

      • Colin says:

        All good to hear. I’m in the middle of the first Bryant & May mystery right now, so that’s the encouragement I needed to bump Zero Cool up to the next book on the “to be read” list.

        • Ah, I’ve just got the first two of those and was eyeing them too as I have heard very good things about the Fowlers and who could pass up a hommage to Carr’s Department of Queer Complaints?!-

          • Colin says:

            That was a large part of the attraction for me – enjoying it so far, although there is a fair bit of character establishment/scene setting.

          • I’ve been watching the new DVD release of the 60s TV show Man in Room 17, which is great fun and is most definitely updating Carr along with Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades and Vickers’ Department of Dead Ends – then there was Asimov’s Black Widower’s Club and, well, lots of great stuff out there but they are all short stories and I have to admit, the single solitary thing that has been holding me back from cracking open one of the Fowlers has been its girth … it’s old age, isn’t? That or watching to much TV in which it all gets resolved within a couple of hours max!

          • Colin says:

            I know what you mean. Fowler’s books are fairly hefty tomes and I have to kind of psyche myself these days to tackle the likes.

          • I feel the same but it doesn’t feel right really as I know that I treat non genre books differently – basically I’m a book length snob!!!

  2. Sergio – Crichton really did do that kind of suspense quite well I think. And I do give him credit for exploring a lot of possibilities in his writing. He discussed nanotechnology, biothreats, airplane disasters and so much more. I always respected that about him. Nice review and reminder, for which as ever, thanks.

    • Thanks Margot – Crichton is more likely to be remembered as an innovator than as a great prose stylist – but I think Andromeda Strain may well be his most important book, as much as for its faux academic shell as anythign else, but it’s not a mystery sho I’m shirking that one for the blog!

  3. I’ve read all the Michael Crichton mysteries & thrillers. Loved the early books especially ANDROMEDA STRAIN. But the later books are longer (much longer!) and less satisfying.

    • I think Andromeda is the one that he will be best remembered for though I suppose Jurassic Park was the real pop culture phenomenon. I’m not sure I read any of his after Disclosure – well, I don’t remember, which tells its own story I suppose …

  4. Richard says:

    Of the books you list at the end of the post, I’ve only read Airframe, which I thought was so-so. This one sounds like something I would have read at the time it was published or soon after, but I wasn’t aware of it. Now I wonder if it isn’t too dated to enjoy. What is The Venom Business about?

    • I know what you mean Richard, though for me it was part of the charm. Venom is, as I recall, much more of an adventure novel with the main character, an expert in poisonous snakes, being taken on as a bodyguard who then starts being targeted himself.

  5. Todd Mason says:

    And, as usual, Crichton seizes on some actual bit of business as his starting point…we certainly had more than our share of righwing, usually somewhat or pseudopopulist, agitators ready to threaten the presidents in the late ’60s/early ’70s…not that Johnson and Nixon weren’t almost as tempting a target for such as today’s nutbars are certain that Obama is a foreign-born socialist Muslim. Even though it trailed off by its end, there was a good chance his most enduring legacy might just be the ER television series…his Other major project with Spielberg and company.

    • It is one of the weaknesses of Binary that it starts off well with the anti-government issue and links it amusingly to the alleged sexual dysfunction of the antagonist (though this is later contradicted, so …) but then seems to completely forget about this once the ticking clock scenario has been established – but this is what makes it pulpy but not much else. You may very well be right about E.R. Todd though in terms of pop culture shall we say, I wonder how many really associate his name with it when compared with all the techno-thrillers.

  6. TracyK says:

    You are enticing me to read one of the John Lange books even more with this review. Don’t know how much I will like them but I have to try them someday. Maybe one will show up at my September book sale. Lots of paperback mysteries there.

    • Look forward to hearing what you make of these – they are very much products of their time but never less than professional. I’ve got one more review of a ‘Lange’ book popping up in a couple of months but that will probably be it for a while!

  7. Hi Sergio, sorry I’m late on the scene and that’s partly because I try and keep away from the internet on weekends. I don’t recall reading any of the pseudonymous books of Michael Crichton including, of course, this one. I’ve enjoyed reading his novels immensely and I’m hoping to read the ones I haven’t yet. Crichton was a futuristic author and I wouldn’t be surprised if he churned out his innovative thrillers from a writer’s laboratory. I’d classify his novels as unputdownable. You look at his list of books and wonder which ones “haven’t” been made into films. How many authors have that distinction? Sadly, he went much before his time.

    • Thanks very much Prashant (and staying away from the Internet at weekends sounds like a very good idea chum – I admire your discipline!). Most of Crichton’s books clearly would work as great movies and I suspect as the years wore on, like Alistair MacLean, that he often thought of the two in tandem, especially after he started directing. Binary is great fun and I am reviewing his film version of it tomorrow in fact …

  8. Pingback: The First Great Train Robbery (1978) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  9. Pingback: Pursuit (1972) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

  10. DoingDewey says:

    Before reading your Crichton reviews, I had no idea he directed so many of his own movies. I wish more authors had that much input in their adaptations! I think you make a great point about Crichton’s themes. It’s like he looks at society and science and thinks about all the things that could possibly go wrong.

    • Thanks Katie – he does seem to have been a very remarkable fellow, probably a bit ahead of his time and, if you consider his age when he wrote book like this, perhaps dare one say a bit jaundiced for one so young! but as you say, clearly a man on the make with many things to say.

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

  12. Pingback: Binary – Michael Crichton | Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased

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