3 out of 5
From the selection of John Lange books I’ve read, the author likes to start quite wide with his narratives, circling around locations and characters and zeroing in on a focus. Even armed with a back-of-book summary, it can be a bit daunting; it’s an approach that feels more cinematic than anything – looking forward many years ahead to when Lange would “become” Michael Crichton, and deliver several soon-to-be-movie novels – and creates something of an immediate roadblock when trying to find the rhythm of the books. This is especially true in Scratch One, in which many of those locations and characters don’t, ultimately, matter – a lot of these intros end in assassinations – and Lange / Crichton gives us a further runaround as a necessity of setting up eventual protagonist Roger Carr, a laidback lawyer who just happens to look like a super secret agent, arriving in France. In order for the proceeding case of mistaken identity to work, Scratch One is first tasked with providing us the context: the agencies at play; the agent for with whom Carr is mixed up. But that means it’s not even clear that Carr is our focus until quite a ways in.
Once the gambit is apparent, though, Scratch One mostly takes off, nailing a fine balance between ridiculous comedy hijinx and relative believability, as Roger’s Mr. Magoo like ability to get out of scrapes is just casual enough to work – and to make us like Roger – while also convincing his “enemies” that he’s the ultimate agent under pressure, never breaking his cover.
The book’s pacing has some further hiccups the deeper we get, though, as Crichton smartly realizes that that balance can’t likely be maintained perpetually, so at some point, some people have to become aware of their mistake, and the book then kind of hits a hard stop, searching to re-establish stakes. But after another chapter or so to put Carr back in position, Crichton wipes the smile off the book’s face, and gives us some twists and more direct imperilment, making for an exciting conclusion, and making good on keeping Carr as a fun everyman to follow through the danger.
Definitely a stop-and-start read, but once it gets going, the text really flies.