Michael Crichton was good at what he did. He could plunge readers into unfamiliar territory, give them enough details to be comfortable, then spin an entertaining story. He also had the facility of releasing his books seemingly in sync with news headlines, even if he’d been researching and writing for a couple of years ahead of those breaking stories. He introduced readers to issues surrounding cloning, nanotechnology, blood diamonds, and international economic theory without breaking the storytelling rhythm he honed over the course of more than thirty years, incorporating his topics into compelling thrillers. His heroes were often ordinary people caught in situations beyond their understanding but whose survival compelled them to think quickly and creatively.
Crichton crossed many boundaries in his life and work – as a medical student at Harvard, he wrote novels under a pseudonym, even winning an Edgar Award for A Case of Need. He earned a doctorate in anthropology and lectured at Cambridge, but was equally at home in Hollywood, writing and directing movies. In addition to his novels, he wrote nonfiction and autobiography. He won an Oscar, an Emmy (for the long-running television show ER, which he created), and a Razzie (for the ‘Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 Million’ – Twister).
Two of his early books stand out to me. The Great Train Robbery tells the story of the charming con man Edward Pierce and his daring plan to steal a fortune in gold from a fast-moving train. Basing the story on real events, Crichton explores the history and sociology of Victorian England even as he sets up the heist. The second, Eaters of the Dead, is famous (at least among library science students at UNC-Chapel Hill), as one of the worst cataloguing mistakes ever made. A mercifully anonymous cataloguer at the Library of Congress got the book, examined the introduction, initial chapters and footnotes, and concluded that the work (subtitled The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan) was a scholarly examination of Norse culture as observed by a traveling Persian. In fact, it is a retelling of the Beowulf legend, with a unique identity for the creature Grendel. Crichton’s habit of using fictional documentation to create verisimilitude succeeded far beyond his expectations. (I spent more time actually reading the book than tracking down the history of the error – and enjoyed it far more.)
In a time when publishers’ demands for more work often sees popular writers farming their names out to produce 3 or 4 shoddy books a year, Crichton seems to have taken his time, immersed himself in his topic, and created tightly-plotted stories to entertain his readers. What more could you ask for?