This 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.”
Bookended 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”
Very 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’
- 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 Overkill] as 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