4 out of 5
I’ve not read any Michael Crichton books. Because I was too cool for many, many schools, once I gleaned on to reading at a young-ish age, I’d wield my supposed reading prowess – I can read dang fast, and I read big books! – over kids my age, and seek out odd looking books on the shelf to impress (or so I thought) my teachers and, like, supermodels or whatever. So by the time I was moving beyond younger kid fare – becoming aware of your Stephen Kings and Michael Crichtons – I was already dismissive of them as being, for mostly non-existent reasons, lesser-than. In some cases – as with King – I had sample their writing and couldn’t really grasp the popularity. But I never read a Michael Crichton book, wrinkling my nose at the proliferation of Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain copies I’d see being bandied about by yon “regular” readers.
But I’ve read some John Lange. And yeah, John Lange writes breezy, easy pulp, but reading the incredibly breezy, easy – and exciting, and funny – Zero Cool, I can absolutely understand how and why Michael Crichton became so popular, assuming he carried over even a sprinkle of the charm and plotting deftness from this pseudonym.
Zero Cool, as represented by Hard Case Crime several years after the fact, has some new bookend framing chapters by the author which frame the rest of the story as a flashback, and also, I guess, try to wink at us a bit sheepishly – kind of admitting that all the hijinx to come are rather silly. And they are, but that’s why the book is as fun as it is.
Radiologist Pete Ross take a vacation, ogles a girl, and then within moments, is having his life threatened, being forced to perform questionable operations, being shuttled to various international destinations – Paris, Grenada – and is being chortled at from all sorts of evil archetypes with named like Tex, The Professor, and The Count. It’s ridiculous. But it works because of how quickly Lange / Crichton shuffles us through it all, and, in rather classic pulp fashion, how Ross keeps a permanently crooked smile on his face throughout, making snide cracks all the while. When this attitude is paired with a macho man or the noir type who makes dumb decisions, it doesn’t always work, but Ross operates with as much savvy as possible for someone in the middle of a situation they cannot possibly understand, caught between criminal forces fighting over something no one wants to directly talk about. Playing with unknowns of this sort can also be problematic for lesser writers, and here again Crichton proves his worth (even at this early, written-in-1969 stage) by making that unknowing part of the story: all of the villains have a good time finding out that Ross has no idea about what’s happening, and so offer up bits and bits of information at a time, allowing Zero Cool to be both an adventure and a mystery.
There’s also something rather cinematic about the structure: at various points, Ross – our POV – will exit the scene, and we’ll stay with the bad guys, who rub their hands together and discuss their evil bad guy plans. For the most part, this adds to the cheeky tone of the book, but towards the end, things devolve in to a drawn out chase that feels more like a movie scene than something narratively effective; it goes on a bit, and then goes on a bit more, and for a novel that’s otherwise prized momentum, it’s a stall right at the end. However, we’re talking like ten pages here – not ten chapters – and we’re back to the zippyness soon enough, right up through the conclusion and, had I been plucking this off a shelf in my youth, probably right on to another Lange book.