The Great Train Robbery
Posted by jack_miller | Published 6 months ago
With 531 ratings
By: Michael Crichton, Michael Kitchen, et al.
Purchased At: $16.95
In teeming Victorian London, where lavish wealth and appalling poverty live side by side, Edward Pierce charms the most prominent of the well-to-do as he cunningly orchestrates the crime of the century. Who would suspect that a gentleman of breeding could mastermind the daring theft of a fortune in gold? Who could predict the consequences of making the extraordinary robbery aboard the pride of England's industrial era, the mighty steam locomotive? Based on fact, as lively as legend, and studded with all the suspense and style of a modern fiction master, here is a classic caper novel set a decade before the age of dynamite - yet nonetheless explosive....
Michael Crichton wrote and directed the screen adaptation of The Great Train Robbery, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.
I read this book in 1976 as required reading for a criminology class at college. It has remained a favorite, and one of my go-to titles when I need to offer a book recommendation to someone. It will not disappoint.
This book is very closely based on an actual train robbery. It reads like a nonfiction book. And you know from the beginning who the culprits are and that they go to trial. A lot of the story was put together through records of their testimonies. It was fascinating to see all of the pieces of the huge heist come together. It made me wonder if Ocean’s 11 was based on this crime.
In the director's commentary on the film DVD, Crichton says that he wanted it to be something between a documentary and just a caper flick. I'm not sure how well he succeeds in that in the film; the set decorators and costume designers did a great job, but this "show, don't tell" approach can do only so much. The book, on the other hand, includes numerous essays on life in Victorian times: about the growth of railroads and the importance of trains and why the train robbery was so shocking, about safes and locks and the security of the times, about the position of women and the difficulty of being an old maid, about "ratting sports," about the activities of Rotten Row, about the Crystal Palace, about Victorian horror of premature burial, and about all manner of crimes and deceptions, with details that are only hinted at in the film.
But this very factual historical background makes it very tempting to believe that the entire story is true--which it is not. Not that it isn't very convincing. As you read the book, you have to firmly remind yourself of this because Crichton confidently quotes verbatim from invented newspaper stories and includes extended excerpts from entirely fictitious books. The best example of this is detailed at http://hnn.us/article/153726 ("A Tale Worthy of Poe: The Myth of George Bateson and his Belfry").
The cultural history is just lagniappe, though. The distinctive characters and meticulously plotted story are what make this book worth rereading. On rereading, I was impressed and pleased again by the design of the book--not just the typography and graphics but the way Crichton has divided the story into discrete parts and chapters almost like acts and scenes. Most of the chapters are quite short, and each is a little jewel that advances just one aspect of the plot.
Having become more knowledgeable about the actual Great Train Robbery of 1855, and having listened to Crichton's director's commentary on the movie DVD, I was even more impressed with this book the second time through. When I first read it, I was impressed with the amount of research Crichton had done and the way he made it read like fiction. The second time I knew that it was almost entirely fiction, so I was equally impressed with his creativity and imagination. As he says on the DVD, "the original episode...was considerably more seedy," and "the real details are sordid and grubby and lacking in drama." Although Crichton did not base his story on the trial transcripts (which he didn't know existed) or on actual newspaper stories (though the book includes several such that he invented), it is clear that he must have done at least some research on the original crime, as the story he tells does match the historical event at some points. But, as he says of the film, "I really like this train robbery a lot better. I'm much more pleased with this version."
Indeed. Crichton has made a silk purse out of a sow's ear, and it is well worth reading. For readers who have enjoyed the book, I do also recommend the film, which is equally excellent in its own way, and I especially recommend listening to the director's commentary, which brings out many fascinating aspects of the story.
I recommend this book.