Written by Michael Crichton, as John Lange — Before his death in 2008, Michael Crichton had an enormous influence on popular culture including scripting Jurassic Park and Twister, and helping create the enormously popular medical drama ER. However, before he established a knack for weaving popular science in to action-packed plotlines, he wrote a series of eight paperback thrillers. While at medical school, he wrote them under the pen name John Lange and just before he died, Hard Case Crime began reprinting them. Grave Descend was the eighth John Lange novel that Crichton wrote, and was originally published in 1970.
I have to admit, I’ve not read any of Crichton’s books, and before I opened Grave Descend I found myself bringing certain preconceptions, or indeed prejudices. Perhaps his plotting would be formulaic, and high-concept, the writing accessible but workman-like, with the books aimed at the mass market and therefore turning out bland and unchallenging. I was wrong…
John McGregor is a 39-year-old professional diver doing salvage work off Jamaica and is used to the fact that sometimes his work isn’t strictly legal. He knows that when a job is almost too good to be true, he should be suspicious. This proves to be the case when he is offered the chance to salvage an expensive luxury cruiser, the Grave Descend, which he’s told has just sunk off the reef. The client is vague and contradictory, and is prepared to pay top dollar for a speedy resolution.
McGregor agrees to take the job, keeping his suspicions to himself, but determines to be extra cautious. Things become even more suspicious as, when he’s scouting the area he sees the ship that’s meant to be on the bottom of the sea out sailing on open water. There don’t seem to be any obvious problems, either – that is until an explosion below the sea-line sinks it. Clearly there is something underhand going on but now McGregor’s professional curiosity is piqued, and he continues the job, bringing in his tough Jamaican friend Yeoman, and his girlfriend Sylvie.
What follows is a rip-roaring adventure that includes diving for sunken treasure in treacherous waters patrolled by hammerhead sharks, a close encounter with Jamaican alligators in the swamp lands known locally as The Pit, international money laundering, the Sicilian mafia, betrayal by an exotic femme fatale, and a thrilling finale as McGregor and Yeoman have to fight their way in, then out, of a heavily guarded compound armed with revolvers and spear guns. All this, and in only 166 pages.
Grave Descend is a great read which really challenged the prejudices I had about Michael Crichton’s writing. Yes, the book is obviously written to sell as many copies as possible, but there is no sacrifice in quality at all. Instead what becomes apparent is his love and knowledge of the genre. McGregor is like a kick-ass Travis McGee and I read the book as being, in part, a homage to John D MacDonald. As is the norm for Hard Case Crime, this new edition comes with a fantastic cover, this time by the excellent pulp illustrator Gregory Manchess.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars