Odds On – Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

3 out of 5


I imagine most active readers have the “tells” they can identify within a few pages that set a certain positive or negative cast upon the book the come. Maybe – like me, working my way through Hard Case Crime’s output – you’re committed to continuing even if you hit some bad signs, or maybe you’ve had overall positive experiences regardless, where getting over the roadblocks leads to better things a few chapters down the road.

I’ve tried some of the post-success Crichton books in my past but not been too drawn to them; however, I’ve enjoyed the republished pulps HCC has dug up, previously published under his John Lange pseudonym, so I was looking forward to their dedicated series of the same, number as MC1, MC2, etc. Odds On was the first of that batch, promising a heist novel, and, eagerly cracking it open… roadblocks.

One of my tells is when a writer dumps character after character after character on me, before I have any ability to establish an initial point of view, or get a read on what we’re doing. It kind of works in Odds On, as Crichton introduces the main players in their plottings of robbing the rich-patroned hotel Reina, swapping between their narrations, as he casually links from one person to another, but it’s still a lot of names and a lot of details up front, and, frustratingly – that emotion being a tell in itself – I found myself flipping back and forth the first few pages to see if I was keeping names and places straight. And the writer essentially keeps doubling down on this, over and over: more characters, with less defined connections to what’s going on, with even that latter point kept a bit cloudy in order to stir up some intrigue.

Each section is well written, but as soon as you get the pace of one, we’re off elsewhere, and in these initial chapters / sections, we’re far away from the hotel; events are not yet centrally located, so there’s nothing to bind this altogether except for the belief that it will, eventually, come together.

And it does. Once Crichton allows the curtain to be pulled back on Odds On’s central heist, it’s fun stuff, the ticking-clock narration of a smart plan coming together. Two of the central characters are rather generically named – Steven, Bryan – and have somewhat similarly terse personalities, making it hard to keep track of one or the other (you’ll note Crichton keeps referring to Steven by his last name, as though realizing the naming gaffe immediately), but even with this, there’s the satisfaction of “watching” three thieving professionals go about their businesses, with little intrigues of complications in their meticulous operation coming up and being swiftly dealt with. We still have the problem of too many side characters, whose chapters / sections often bring the pacing to a halt, but it at least becomes clearer that Crichton is doing this to establish red herrings, because any great heist tale must have something major go wrong, and thus even the swirl of seeming asides becomes part of that anticipation.

And I have to say: once the thing does go wrong, I wasn’t expecting it the way it happened, so major points on that.

Despite its structure very much getting in its way – this was Crichton’s first novel, I believe – Odds On is a mostly satisfying thriller, tossing in some oddities and intelligentsia that are telling of an author who would be honing his craft in books to come.