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August 02, 1975 - Image 6

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Text
Publication:
Michigan Daily, 1975-08-02

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Page Six

THE MICHIGAN GAILY

Saturday, August 2, 1975

Crichton xpress: Classical lines

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY by
Michael Crichton. Knopf, New York. 226
pp.
By JIM HILL
In this backward-looking period in our
emotional history when the publishing
houses are doing a brisk business in
"Sherlockiana" (i.e., new editions of
Sherlock Holmes as well as studies of the
world's foremost sleuth) and cleverly de-
signed Victorian sagas, Michael Crich-
ton's new suspense novel appears as a
superbly timed work of fiction. The Great
Train Robbery has climbed steadily on
the best-seller lists in the few weeks
since its publication and promises to
remain there until the end of the sum-
mer season.
It's that kind of a book: a highly en-
joyable crime caper that people c a n
work effortlessly into their vacations -
on the road, on the beach - then pass
on to friends.
The story is based on a recorded event

red precisely as given in the novel. Much
like Crichton's two previous sci-fi novels,
The Andromeda Strain and The Termin-
al Man, the action here is carefully tim-
ed and tightly controlled and impressively
supported by a wealth of thoroughly re-
searched esoterica. The sophistication,
however, lies not so much in technologi-
cal hardware as human ingenuity. To
heighten the level of verisi ilitude,
Crichton employs an historian's per-
spective (thereby, a precise chronicle of
facts) and a formal Victorian period
prose rather like John Fowles in The
French Lieutenant's Woman.
As in his previous novels, and in the
best tradition of sci-fi writers, Crichton
subordinates character to plot; b u t
it's on the level of plot where he demon-
strates his mastery in the genre of sus-
pense fiction.
He very carefuly constructs a puzzle
then very elaborately solves it: how does
one go about stealing 12,000 pounds in
gold from two safes locked in the guard-
ed carriage of a train travelling between

The
Saturday
Magazine

I I I I q r 1A

law of physics known as Bernoulli's Prin-
ciple, and the twist seems exactly right
for the occasion, the sort of unexpected
intrusion of arcana that one can savor.
The characters have little or no depth;
they are either faintly sketched or broad-
ly drawn. Edward Pierce, the master-
mind, remains a mysterious figure at
the end of the book; he is described as
being a tall, handsome man with a full
red beard; his origins are unknown, his
manner urbane, unflappable, impeccably
logical, and endlessly resourceful, and
his only revealed motive for carrying out
the theft is "because I wanted the mon-
ey."
The secondary characters, Agar the
"screwsman" (safe-cracker), C I e a n
Willy the "snakesman" (cat burglar),
and Miriam, the lovely mistress of
Pierce, are primarily specialists, and
never emerge to any extent from their
limited Dickensian roles. They repre-
sent the London underworld, a subcul-
ture with a style and argot which the
reader quickly warms to and enters into
the spirit of, so that when Pierce men-
tions that he intends - to "snaffle" a
"pogue" and will need five "barkers",
the meaning is clear.
While the compression of time isn't
as important here as in Crichton's past
novels, the action does move forward
rapidly, through preparations, difficul-
ties and delays, to the pinch itself. The
pace of events and growing suspense
does occasionally slow and weaken be-
neath the weight of Victoriana Crich-

ton so unreservedly includes; he very
conscientiously prepares a context -
ranging from the peculiar history of Scot-
land Yard to the vaguely relevant Ind-
ian rebellion of 1857, and, having versed
the reader, he proceeds with the action,
the plot is picked up and embellished.
Crichton frequently provides irresist-
ibly odd pieces of Victoriana, which the
reader is grateful for, such as the ac-
count of the famous waterfront lodgings
called "penny hangs", frequented by sea-
men. Here drunken sailors slept the night
for a penny, draped like sodden rugs
aver a taut, chest-high rope.
Another tantalizing bit of trivia involv-
es the Victorian obsession with prema-
ture burial; it seems that the fear was
so common that it prompted the inven-
tion of a number of signalling devices
which the newly revived corpse could
sound for speedy excavation. Among the
simplest and most economical of these
products was the "Bateson Life Revival
Device", an iron bell mognted over the
casket that registered via a connecting
wire the slightest movement made by
the decass-d (naturally, a false fiarm
was a sobering experience).
"lust b e f a r e the actual
heist, the robbers are nearly
defeated by their misunder-
standing of an obscure law of
physics. It is the kind of un-
expected intrusion of orcano
that one can savor'
The Great Train Robbery has (l i k e
Crichton's antecedent thrillers) the un-
mistakable lok and feel of a novel de-
signed with a movie in mind, a movie
which the versatile Crichton is likely to
direct, and which promises to be more
entertainment than an enduring work of
art. n

° _ _

in English history. In 1855, with Britain
engaged in war with Russia, the monthly
payroll train bound for troops in the
Crimea was robbed of 12,000 pounds in
gold bullion. London newspapers played.
up the robbery; it became a celebated
heist. Author Crichton gives a fictionaliz-
ed account of what might have happen-
ed, and he does so with such a plethora
of authentic period detail and solid do-
cumentation that the reader hasn't a
shading of doubt that the robbery occur-

'Nashville':
Altman s
America,
a' study
in light
and stark

London and the coast without tipping off
the authorities? Impossible . .. but wait
... the mechanics of the operation are
endlessly fascinating; the dazling inven-
tiveness of the robbers, the unexpected
developments, the setbacks, the suc-
cesses and the hair-breadth escapes keep
the reader turning pages. In the mo-
ments before the actual heist the rob-
bers are very nearly defeated by their
mistaken understanding of an obscure
By DEBORAH SCHWARZ
Robert Altman's latest film, "Nash-
ville," explores a familiar yet enigmatic
terrain, the South, focusing on it's most
profitable and beloved pastime, the
music industry.
Delving beneath the crooning violins
and twangy soaring voices of Grand
Ole Opry and Country and Western, Alt-
man touches with clarity and accuracy
the people of Nashville, of the South,
and of America. It is a huge, involved
spectacle of a film, and Altman never
misses. While a large cast may be a
drawback for another filmmaker, Alt-
man expertly and completely develops
his diversified company of lesser knowns
and stars, capturing their lives, their
ambitions, and their dreams..
The action centers somewhat loosely
upon two major events; the hmecoming
of Barbara- Jean, an up and coming
Country and Western singer scarred by
a tragic past and serious emotional prob-
lems, and the Presidential campaigning
of a newly formed Replacement Party
candidate, who suspiciously resembles a
George Wallace type. The juxtaposition-
ing of these two events is telling, for we

watch frail Barbara Jean undergo a irritably with the overall smooth tone.
pathetic emotional disintegration in pain- She is too typically loud and obnoxious
ful, open view to her public, while we in her flustering intellectualizing, Yet
hear this mysterious grass-roots candi- her character and the occasional am-
date, an omnipresent politico barricaded biguity of a few scenes do not detract
behind a megaphone. from the grace and spontaneity of the
This is a sigificant comment upon the film
curious, false intimacy the media allows
us. The public can indulge in an intrld- Altman's greatest achievement is in
ing speculation upon an entertainer's pri- making a superb documentary-type film
"'Nashville' is a huge, involved spectacle of a film,
and Altman never misses . . . He shows us an America
tarnished by, vulgarity and brashness that are uniquely
American. The view is saddening and. somehow familiar."
vate life, but is allowed only a meager that goes a step beyond mere "movie"
knowledge of the politics guiding our appeal to .capture the shifting, unset-
lives. Barbara Jean is preyed upon by tIed mood of middle America. "Nash'
her insensitive audience, but the candi- ville" shows us an American tarnished
date is elusive, shielded by banners, by a vulgarity and brashness that is
loudspeakers, and shrewd managers. uniquely American, and the view is sad-
The fluid style of "Nashville" allows dening and somehow familiar. Still the
for flaws as well as excellence. Geral- film is far from gloomy or pessimistic,
dine Chaplin, as the dizzy psuedo-intel- for it also reveals a stubborn, persistent
lectual reporter from the BBC, clashes energy and hope.

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