Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Michael Crichton, unlike most authors, has managed to pen multiple classics over the course of his lifetime, many of which were turned into equally-celebrated motion pictures. The Great Train Robbery is one of his better-known works, taking us to London 1855 to embark on an adventure alongside Edward Pierce as he orchestrates the crime of the century.
Table of contents
Michael Crichton Commits the Immortal Crime
It is difficult to say when exactly it started, but the glamorization of criminals and villains is nothing new to us. The archetype of the “noble” criminal has been around since Robin Hood, if not before, and I must admit, it’s difficult to avoid becoming captivated by the idea of a freewheeling life punctuated by masterful acts of cunning and bravery. Though such criminals are virtually nonexistent in the real world, they sure have their place in Michael Crichton‘s The Great Train Robbery.
Now, it should be mentioned that this book was turned into a great classic movie by the same name, and it seems to me most of the people interested in reading the book are already familiar with the movie. Is it still worth reading if the the film is well ingrained in your mind? I would say definitely yes, because as is virtually always the case, books provide a much greater wealth of details, thoughts and ideas the silver screen simply cannot capture.
In any case, just to give you a cursory idea of the plot, it takes us to London of 1855, at the height of its industrialization and social inequity. The gap between the rich and the poor has never been this wide, and most people are born into one of the two worlds, and live in them until they die without any hope for change.
One man, however, navigates both worlds quite adeptly, a rogue by trade and calling in life, a man named Edward Pierce. By day he is a prominent good Samaritan to the upper classes, while by night he mingles with the criminal elements of the city and lets his true flags fly. A gentleman of extraordinary breeding he might be, he is also the mastermind many fear without even knowing it.
Lately, he has been living with only a single thought in his mind, centred on the great steam locomotive, the height of Great Britain’s achievement in the industrial era. It is used to transport great riches from one place to another, being perhaps the most highly-secured and reliable method of transport in existence. However, nothing is too secure nor reliable for Edward Pierce and his boundless imagination.
What was really so shocking about The Great Train Robbery was that it suggested, to the sober thinker, that the elimination of crime might not be an inevitable consequence of forward-marching progress.― Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery
A Caper with Context in The Great Train Robbery
Briefly going back to the movie once again, as great as it might have been, there is only so much that can be done with the silver screen approach of showing rather than telling. As such, a good part of the book had to be cut out from the film entirely, and in my opinion, it’s the part which truly elevates the novel far beyond its movie counterpart.
On one hand, literary version of The Great Train Robbery follows Edward as he engineers and plots the titular robbery, and we’re going to discuss this in greater detail later on. On the other hand, the book offers something quite interesting and educative in the form of various short essays centred on various topics pertaining to life during the Victorian era.
I understand, overtly it sounds a little boring and perhaps out of place in a caper story meant to be fast-paced and thrilling, but the way its implemented by Michael Crichton complements the action by giving it some much-needed context and meaning. In other words, the author takes his time and educates us about the things we might be witnessing.
The topics he delves into include the general customs and traditions of the time, the invention and growth of the railroad, the tremendous importance of trains, the various safety measures (including safes) used to protect valuable goods back then, the position of women in society, premature burials… the list goes on and on. Even if a topic isn’t immediately pertinent to the events at hand, it does help to build a realistic setting.
Having this tremendous wealth of cultural history composing the background for the events in the novel makes it feel like a true and believable story, even if it isn’t completely factual. In my opinion, any crime novel which manages to portray itself in a believable fashion automatically becomes leagues more interesting, if only due to the fact one can imagine it occurring in real life.
His only true protection—and the source of his audacity—lay in his complete misunderstanding of the danger he faced.― Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery
As great as a profoundly-researched, factual historical background might be, on its own it does not make for an exciting novel. Naturally, one also needs all the other elements which make for a good story, and Michael Crichton put no less effort in developing his characters and the plot surrounding them.
I think we all understand that the idea of brave thieves who take on daring heists and take care not to hurt people through their actions is a bit of a romanticism. We all know most criminals don’t follow some strict code of honour, and certainly aren’t noble and charismatic individuals. Nevertheless, they do have a place in fiction, especially in novels like The Great Train Robbery.
Though we do need to suspend our disbelief for a bit when meeting Edward Pierce’s crew, it doesn’t take long for them to all start growing on the reader as they show more and more of their human side. Each and every member of the crew has some appreciable depth to work with, a collection of remarkable idiosyncratic individuals whom we always want to learn more about.
Personally, I most enjoyed the scenes where we could witness the whole gang working together in brilliant unison, their chemistry feeling natural and apparent. As I matter of fact, I often got so lost in rooting for them that I forgot they were, at the end of the day, criminals committing a crime, and not daring adventurers attempting a seemingly impossible feat in search of treasures.
Historical essays aside, the action in the book does move along fairly quickly, with the occasional pauses here and there for world and character development. There is always some forward momentum pushing us closer and closer to the finish line, and as you might imagine, this book essentially turns into a thriller once the heist itself is in motion, gripping us tighter and tighter until we reach the unforgettable explosive conclusion.
|320||Arrow Books Ltd.||Jan 1 1995||978-0099482413|
The Final Verdict
The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton certainly deserves to be one of the greatest bestsellers of the 70s (still going strong to this very day), mixing an unforgettable heist plot with a heartwarming cast of characters and educative essays about Victorian England.
If you’re looking for a good, classic heist novel guaranteed to keep you glued to the pages and to leave you feeling satisfied once all is said and done, then you definitely can’t go wrong with this book.
John Michael Crichton
(October 23rd, 1942 – November 4th, 2008)
John Michael Crichton was an American author and filmmaker whose books sold for over 200 million copies and been adapted into films on over a dozen occasions. The awards and accolades he received are too numerous to list in their entirety, but among them are the 1969 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel for A Case of Need, not to mention he wrote some timeless classics such as The Great Train Robbery and Jurassic Park.