Grave Descend – John Lange

3 out of 5

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Hey y’all – first Michael Crichton novel here, wouldn’t ya’ know.  That’s right: Ol’ “buck the trend” Altman was too busy crying and quoting Catch-22 to read Jurassic Park or Andromeda Strain at the time, and so he waits ninety years until “accidentally” consuming a Crichton via the author’s John Lange non de plume (which, prior to HCC’s recent reprints of these where it explicitly states the dual identity on the cover – they actually printed Grave Descend twice, once as part of a set and once years prior as a standalone – I wouldn’t have known was actually Crichton.).  Why did I avoid the experience for so long?  Well, part of it was the normal business of me being an asshole and associating what was popular with it explicitly not being cool.  But part of it – and I guess this goes hand in hand – is judging a book by its cover, in a way.  The teeming masses who loved the author suggested to me novels of mass appeal, which can’t easily be all that deep or affecting, by logical dint of being appreciated by so many people.  This is the concept of mass appeal, after all.  Do I own a lot of this big bang stuff?  Sure.  But I’m not sure how much of it I’d claim functions on a level beyond entertainment, unless it falls into the cultural zeitgeist category organically.  But once you’re a Stephen King or a Crichton, I imagine it’s hard to fall out of the spotlight.

More concisely: I had zero doubt about Crichton’s ability to write a page turner, I just doubted to lasting impact once you closed the covers.  Case in point – and accepting that this is written purposefully as a cracking piece of pulp and not a sci-fi thriller: Grave Descend.

McGregor is the type of character you can always call by his last name.  He rides a fast bike, has a smart retort to everything, and gives the wry eye to anyone he doesn’t know on this Jamaican Isle where he works as a salvage diver for hire.  You learn this all in the opening scene, as he blazes on his bike to a meeting with a man named Wayne, snappy retorts all the while, offered an oddball deal to check out a recent shipwreck.  “Sure,” McGregor retorts, and then goes about gathering his cronies – local tough Yeoman and femme fatale Sylvie – to start investigating the deal and figure out what’s what.  Crichton / Lange, expertly playing McGregor as a likeable rogue, has him doing his best to avoid what’s seeming like too much trouble, but get swept up in it anyway.  Requisite page turning adventure follows, with sharks, explosions, alligators, and double crosses.  And as expected, it’s entertaining as Hell.  McGregor is pitched at a level of intelligence that keeps the reader in tow with his actions, with the brief spurts of violence and thrills dropping us right in the moment, relatable in their sense of panic and believably executed as last minute saves or twists of fate.  It’s all very cinematic, of course.

The plot ticks by with new additions to the Why of it all to keep you hooked, but it’s also rather clearly all a bit of a lark: As McGregor snarkily confirms that things at awry, we no longer take anything at face value and just sit back to go along for the ride, which is completely smooth sailing for its 200 pages.  And looking back, even some of that slim reading length could be excised: Little character moments that are cute but unnecessary; some plot padding that attempts to dress up what’s essentially just a heist.

But there’s the skill of mass appeal: I’m absolutely satisfied as I read, and these flaws or forgotten as easily as the rest of the experience when I pass the last page and close the cover…

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