Reviewed by C.J. Bunce
Grave Descend was penned in 1970, the penultimate novel Michael Crichton wrote under the pseudonym John Lange back in his med school days, re-released thanks to Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime series after years out of print. We previously reviewed his Scratch One and Zero Cool here at borg.com. Before the days of stories centered on a group of disparate scientists thrown together to solve an impossible and often unbelievable problem, Crichton tried his hand at adventure novels that borrow more from Ian Fleming than science fiction.
In Mad Men fashion his work included the arrogance and womanizing of pulp novels of the day, and early Crichton protagonists were often American wannabe James Bonds. His leads are not spies but experts in something, for example lawyer Roger Carr in Scratch One and radiologist Peter Ross in Zero Cool, each dropped into an adventure they didn’t ask for, Carr mistaken for a spy and Ross forced to violate his ethics in a strange way. In Grave Descend we catch up with Jim McGregor, a deep-sea diver hired to retrieve objects from a multi-million dollar yacht sunken off the coast of Jamaica. But he quickly notices oddities related to his new project and the man who hired him.
Here Crichton returns to a setting of Fleming’s expertise, that Caribbean island that Bond frequents in several novels, including Casino Royale and Doctor No, also reviewed here previously. Like Fleming, Crichton presents a realistic Jamaica, from its denizens kicking back Red Stripe beer to its seemingly never-changing, sharply divided social strata, to its sand to forest variety of natural landscapes.
Like many a sidekick in Fleming’s stories, McGregor has his own helper and ear-to-the-ground in his friend Yeoman, who we find has his own skills. No other standout supporting characters can be found this time around–except the brief appearance of a local police investigator who has the feel of the clever Inspector Hubbard who carefully pursued the murderer in Hitchcock’s Dial “M” For Murder. Likewise, modern readers will be happy to find less womanizing cringeworthiness this time around, yet as is typical for Crichton’s early work, men can’t trust women.
McGregor is likeable—he is an expert in his field and plays it smart. He knows Jamaica and has good instincts. Grave Descend delivers as it should for a quick-read written for late 1960s audiences—plenty of action and a story that doesn’t leave loose threads at the end, and less cringe factors than you’d expect for the day. Better yet, it’s before the days of the poor endings that plagued Crichton’s writing once he hit fame, so you can be sure not to be disappointed in this story’s ending.