Retro review–“Scratch One,” one of eight “lost” Michael Crichton novels coming to bookstores

Scratch One cover by Orbik

Review by C.J. Bunce

If you’re like this reader, you probably thought you read the last of the catalog of Michael Crichton novels when you finished his last novel, Micro, reviewed here at last year.  But what if there were eight Crichton novels that suddenly appeared, as if by magic, that you had never heard of?  The “lost” Crichton novels?  For fans of Crichton (who died in 2008) and his bestsellers like Jurassic Park, Sphere, Disclosure, and Rising Sun, it’s practically a dream come true.  Diehards may have heard of these eight novels published in the late 1960s, written while Crichton was in medical school, all under the pen name John Lange and all long out of print and nearly impossible to find.

Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint worked with Crichton in his last years to re-edit, re-write a few chapters, and then finalize a new printing of all eight novels, with interesting and catchy titles Odds On, Scratch One, Easy Go, Zero Cool, The Venom Business, Drug of Choice, Grave Descend, and Binary, and all with great new pulp art covers by Glen Orbik.  We plan to review them all here, and today we begin with Crichton’s second published novel, Scratch One, originally published in 1967, but available next week in bookstores.  It’s not yet known if re-releases of two other early works by Crichton, A Case of Need, written as Jeffery Hudson, and Dealing, written as Michael Douglas, will be forthcoming.

Scratch One first edition

Scratch One follows Roger Carr, an American lawyer who has been assigned the posh job of acquiring a half-billion dollar villa in France for a wealthy client.  It’s the type of job Carr is used to as the son of a senator without any other particular value to his firm.  It allows him to maintain a playboy’s lifestyle on the French Riviera and other lavish European locations and use his charisma to land a new lady friend at every stop along the way.  But where Carr sounds like he could be James Bond, he also has no particular skill as a spy or assassin.  That’s relevant because Carr stumbles into a scenario that could be found in an Ian Fleming novel.

Carr in every way is “the Man who Knew Too Little.”  Unfortunately he just happens to look like a real spy being sought by a league of murderers trying to prevent an arms deal with a faction in the Middle East.  Their method of stopping the deal is plucking off one by one key players in Egypt, Portugal, Denmark, and France, and murdering a popular race car driver at the famous annual Grand Prix–a driver who is a wealthy man in his own right who, as part of his side activities, mixes with arms dealers.

early edition of Scratch one

But Carr doesn’t look exactly like the actual spy that is the target of the bad guys, which lends to confusion.  When approached to meet with both sides, he is understandably confused and ignores the strange things happening around him, and his own self-centered lifestyle causes him to miss queues and opportunities, as he plunges himself even further into the plots of spies and French police.  But not without hooking up with a new intriguing gal in the process.

It’s not the stuff of later Crichton novels–there’s no team of experts of different skill sets that band together to solve some scientific-based problem–but the writing is tight and the story exciting.  Much of the setting and scenes will recall Casino Royale, and Scratch One could be what is happening on the other side of town when the circumstances of that novel are taking place.  Unlike many of Crichton’s novels that had clunky endings (Congo and Sphere come to mind), Scratch One wraps up its story nicely with a well-choreographed climax.  The story has serious elements that appeared in comedic form in the original James Bond parody film Casino Royale and the later espionage Tom Hanks comedy The Man with One Red Shoe.  It may be familiar territory to some readers, but it’s good spy reading.

Earlier Scratch one reprint edition

Crichton’s villain is a classic Bond type.  A French doctor named Liseau–his medical knowledge affords him the very best ways to torture his victims–and it’s almost hard to keep track of all the collateral victims that get eliminated in Liseau’s efforts to catch his spy.

One excellent character is a police inspector named Vascard, a put-upon detective who Carr finds himself up against throughout the story.  Vascard is the type of guy you’d see Clancy Brown playing in the film adaptation of the novel.

Scratch One is a great starting point for this “new-old” series, and should have alerted the world in 1967 that an excellent, up-and-coming novelist was in our midst.  Scratch One will be released in bookstores October 29, 2013, and is available at a pre-order discount now from Amazon.

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