The Venom Business – Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

2 out of 5

HCC-MC5

You can sit through a movie you don’t like. It’s maybe two hours, and you get to chat about it with your moviegoing friend afterwards. You can hate-watch a TV show – it’s passive; it can be on in the background; and again, maybe some watercooler chatter about how much you dislike it. Hate-reading a book, though, is a crime: you have to try to do this, and while you can have some conversations about it afterwards, the amount of time / effort you put in to burning through X amount of pages is often enough, and you just want to move on to a more refreshing text.

I have chosen to read every Hard Case Crime book. It’s my choice. I can’t blame anyone for “making” me “sit through” a book. And the payoff is getting to blab about it here, whatever the results.

But sometimes that will be negative; the Michael Crichton republications from HCC – when the author was going by John Lange, and writing pulps – have definitely not been my favorites from the imprint, but there’s interest in reading a formative voice, and seeing the tendency toward bigger concepts, and a more expressive writing style. However, The Venom Business requires quite a refresher afterwards, and was very much a hate-read. It’s nearly 400 pages of a story that never starts; a book that constantly makes you question whether or not the plot has actually begun. Crichton swims into some charming dialogue exchanges, but they feel out of place amidst the slower churn of the story; there’s an interesting pulp concept here – multiple double-crosses, in which each cross-ee knows part of how they’re being swindled – but it’s caught halfway between being written in a more yellow format for the genre and a more cinematic style befitting Crichton’s later works that it ultimately stalls, suffering from a lack of identity. And without that, a lack of momentum.

Charles Raynaud handles snakes. He imports / exports them to provide them for study, and so has to have knowledge of how to deal with them. This happens to also provide great cover for being a thief, smuggling goods alongside his researchings. This is a fun character wrinkle, and provides some good intrigue in Venom Business’ first “book” – it’s divided into three, one over-serious strike against the text, as it’s another affect that doesn’t add anything to it – but it’s also one of many bits and pieces that proves completely pointless; time and again, Crichton will construct sequences that are fun on their own, but are scene dressing; we learn about characters (and the premise) in a very circumspect, roundabout way. In a more carefully constructed narrative, this would feel playful; here, it just seems like Crichton kept delaying the point in the hopes of finding some stronger hook for telling the story – a hook that never arrives.

Raynaud is hired to act as bodyguard for Richard Pierce, and we learn that there’s a tiff involving inheritance, and the conditions to get it. Was Raynaud hired to be bait for assassination attempts? And if he’s aware of that, does that change his part?

Again, some intriguing tete-a-tetes: everyone seems to know part of the picture. The problem is that the whole picture is not very interesting – there’s not some hidden agenda – and that the reader gets the gist pretty early on. We’ve still got about 300 pages to go, waiting for everyone to discover the part they’re playing.

I’ve read books that are definitely more poorly written and conceived, so this isn’t bottom of the barrel. However, I have maybe “enjoyed” those works more because their negatives are easily graspable, so you know where you’re at when reading. The Venom Business is more elusive, as it’s well-written and backed by good ideas, but maddeningly makes one sit through pages and pages without kicking into gear, and without ever really letting you feel out its characters. I imagine myself reading this back in 1970, and maybe being able to recognize: this author is better than this material. Given that Crichton abandoned the Lange name, and that the material didn’t come back around to print until quite after the fact, perhaps there was some consensus there.