Scratch One

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scratchone200Written by Michael Crichton, as John Lange — Late last year, Hard Case Crime reprinted eight crime novels written by Michael Crichton. They were under the pseudonym John Lange, while he was at university in the late 60s and early 70s. We reviewed Grave Descend and it made my top five books of 2013 which you can read here. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to give Scratch One a go as well. It was originally published in 1967.

Here Crichton riffs on the mistaken identity device where a normal man is confused with a secret agent and plunges headlong into adventure where he doesn’t know the rules of the game, shouldn’t have the skills to win, and the stakes are life and death.

Roger Carr is in Cannes to purchase a villa for his father’s friend, an American senator. Carr has been working at his father’s firm for some years without ever really making a name for himself. He’s confident, successful with women, but lacks the gravitas to make it in the courtroom, and he doesn’t have the ambition to climb any higher in the firm. His pleasant demeanour does make him popular with clients though, and this sort of mindless errand is what he is used to.

scratchone1967Elsewhere in Europe a Middle Eastern terrorist group is carrying out a series of targeted assassinations, clearing the way for a shipment of arms to go to Palestine. The US intellignece men know about the plot and send an agent to France to stop it. An agent who gets unavoidably delayed. An agent who looks remarkably like Carr…

From the moment he lands in Cannes, Carr is besieged by strangers sending him cryptic messages, following and threatening him, and giving him orders he can’t understand. The only people who stand between the bemused lawyer and certain death are a French policeman and an American Embassy attache. Both are suspicious that Carr is truly a fish out of water but are not prepared to directly intervene. Meanwhile the group behind the plot have brought in the blonde German hitman Brauer, who has a deadly reputation and is tasked with killing Carr. To survive, our unlikely hero will have to rely on his wits and trust his beautiful French dancer girlfriend in a race against time. The plotline zips around the French Riviera, and takes him to the home of a mad surgeon and the Monaco Grand Prix.

There is a surprising amount of humour, especially in the first half of the book, as Carr is bewildered by the attention he receives, and the professionals wonder why he is so amateurish. It is this humour, and Crichton’s natural storytelling skills which raise the book above the pulp pack, and in truth the second half of the book, in which everybody knows what is going on, is not quite so satisfying.

Crichton will be remembered for his staggeringly successful high-concept thrillers later in his career, and the films he produced. But these novels, written as John Lange, deserve to be more than just a footnote. Scratch One includes a suitably retro pulp cover illustration by Glen Orbik.

Hard Case Crime/Titan Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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