Zero Cool cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Just two years before he would become a well-known breakout author with 1971’s Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton wrote his fifth novel under the pseudonym John Lange, Zero Cool.  This is one of eight novels Crichton wrote in his medical school days reprinted in a new edition thanks to Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime series, and it is second in our series of reviews of these classic, “lost” novels.

Zero Cool is definitely a product of the late 1960s.  Unlike Crichton’s bulky, techno-babble filled later works, Zero Cool reads like a quick pulp novel you’d read years ago on the Greyhound bus between towns.  Completely escapist fun, its hero, American radiologist Peter Ross, is visiting places you might find in an Ian Fleming James Bond novel or Michael Dibdin’s Zen novels, and there are plenty of luxurious European settings he finds himself in over the course of the book. Crichton’s writing is tight and he seems to be close to mastering his pattern for storytelling, mixing otherwise unrelated worlds that culminate with some strange resolution you can’t see coming.

Original Zero Cool pulp paperback

But his lead character is not so sympathetic.  We appreciate Ross’s plight but aren’t sure we’d take a bullet for him.  Ross is to give a presentation at a medical conference in the beach (and women)-filled local of Tossa de Mar, Spain.  He really wants a vacation but simply because he’s an American doctor a mobster element is in need of his abilities to conduct an autopsy of one of their own. It’s an offer he at first refuses, but his life is threatened over and over, and he gets sucked into a strange world of thieves, perfume and jewelry aficionados, and of course, murderers.

Like his lead character Roger Carr in Scratch One (reviewed here at borg.com earlier this year), he’s a fish out of water, a well-to-do American who has bad things happen to him, yet he’s not quite real–a bit aloof for someone we need to empathize with.  He doesn’t quite react like a normal person would—routinely a gun is pulled on him and he responds in humorous quips as James Bond would, yet there’s no reason this guy shouldn’t run to the nearest consulate or airport to just get out of there.  But because this is a Crichton work, readers will still have plenty of fun along the way.

Setting is everything.  Whether Ross finds himself looking for a body in a rat-infested ancient building, or he’s admiring the mansions of bad guys from Barcelona to Paris, we’re kept intrigued as to where this will all end.  If there’s negative it is the similarity of the book to his MacGuffin in his later work Congo, where you follow the quest only to learn of an unlikely surprise twist.

Early Lange Zero Cool cover

While Crichton would in later novels form together groups of experts in unrelated fields and let them sleuth their way out of their plights, as in Jurassic Park or Sphere, early on Crichton mashed together disparate story elements in a similar way.  We never know why it was relevant Ross was a radiologist as opposed to any other kind of doctor.  Yet here he is.  And he meets up with a collector of perfumes.  Odd choice.  And a falconer.  And smugglers from different factions–villains strange for the sake of being strange like Dr. No, Drax, or Blofeld from the world of Bond.  And more than one woman who is a double agent, like a parody of a Bond novel.

For added “cool,” check out the book the woman on the cover is reading.  It’s the Crichton Hard Case Crime novel Grave DescendAlso, keep an eye out in Zero Cool for Crichton’s early dabblings with a brilliant mathematician and chaos theory.

It all adds up to a fun, light read, and a further eye into the craft of writing as Crichton was just getting his footing.  Zero Cool is available at Amazon.com.

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