- Author: Michael Crichton (1942 – 2008)
- Published: 1975
- Publisher: Knopf
- Pages: 281
- First Line: “Forty minutes out of London, passing through the rolling green fields and cherry orchards of Kent, the morning train of the South Eastern Railway attained its maximum speed of fifty-four miles an hour.”
- Last Line: “The money from The Great Train Robbery was never recovered.”
- Film: 1979 (*** – dir. Michael Crichton)
- First Read: Spring 1993
The Novel: It is only appropriate that a Michael Crichton novel should appear here. My Top 100 list was originally formed in response to the Modern Library list. But, back in 2008, just after Michael Crichton died, I published a different kind of list, my 25 Favorite Novels, the ones I would read over and over and over again. I called it Requiem for Michael Crichton and it had Jurassic Park on the list, a book I have read any number of times. Then there is The Great Train Robbery, which I read some 20 years ago, loved, and haven’t read since. Until recently, when I finally saw the film, and then picked up the book again and remembered what a damn good read it is.
Crichton’s novel begins with an actual robbery – The Great Gold Robbery of 1855, known at the time as the Great Train Robbery, though that name would eventually be co-opted by the 1963 mail robbery. Not much is known about a number of the criminals actually involved in the robbery itself. But, inspired by a history book called The Victorian Underworld, Crichton took the actual mastermind behind the plot and made him into a sort of gentleman-criminal, the very refined Edward Pierce (“This singular gentleman was Edward Pierce, and for a man destined to become so notorious that Queen Victoria herself expressed a desire to meet him – or, barring that, to attend his hanging – he remains an oddly mysterious figure.”).
Crichton follows the plans of Pierce, from his initial ideas, through his gathering of a specific team (most notably Robert Agar, the “known screwsman, or specialist in keys and safe-breaking” that he needed), all with the precise talents needed to pull off the plan: the heist of £12,000 in gold intended for payment to British troops in the Crimea. It moves through their ups (the successful copying of all four keys needed at the time) and their downs (the cops becoming wise to Pierce’s intentions to make a big pull, the change in procedure at the railroad company because of an unrelated crime that never actually happened). It is not precise history as the actual crime went (Crichton alters the names, adds a female accomplice for some sex appeal, gives a happy ending to the crooks) but it is a great thriller that is compulsively readable and always interesting.
But the book isn’t just a thriller. It’s a good sociological look at the times, at the society which created these circumstances:
England’s railways grew at such a phenomenal rate that the city of London was overwhelmed, and never managed to build a central station. Instead, each of the lines, built by private firms, ran their tracks as far into London as they could manage, and then erected a terminus. But in the mid-century this pattern was coming under attack. The dislocation of poor people, whose dwellings were demolished to make way for the incoming lines, was one argument; another focused on the inconvenience to travelers forced to cross London by coach to make connections from one station to another in order to continue their journey.
Of course, some older sections of London retained a character of great elegance and wealth, but these were often cheek by jowl with the most dismal and shocking slums. The proximity of great riches and profound squalor also impressed foreign observers, particularly since the slums, or rookeries, were refuges and breeding places for “the criminal class.” There were sections of London where a thief might rob a mansion and literally cross a street to disappear into a tangled maze of alleyways and dilapidated buildings crammed with humanity and so dangerous that even an armed policeman did not dare pursue the culprit.
We can follow the story, but it is so much more than that. It is a reminder why Crichton was one of the best in the business and was so successful for so long.
And so we must begin with the key component of the book – the gentleman-criminal. Who could play the part of the perfect gentleman and still be so much of a cad that he could, with perfect style utter that great line at the end: “I wanted the money”? Why not the man who had been the premier British agent, a lot of gentleman and a whole lot of cad? Why not Sean Connery?
That was the first good choice in the making of the film. Connery would provide the right touch of class, the right touch of rogue and just enough humor to keep the film alive and moving forward.
Then there is the man behind the camera, the man behind the story, Michael Crichton himself. Crichton was a multi-talent: he had been a doctor before he had been a writer (his experiences as a doctor lead to some of his first books) and he would be a talented director as well. In 1994, he would actually have the top-selling film, book and television show simultaneously, with sales of Jurassic Park, his top-seller Disclosure and the new tv show he had just created – “E/R”. He went behind the camera for this one, adapting his own novel and even directing (he knew exactly what to change – he combined Agar with a minor character in one scene perfectly and he streamlined the ending by having Pierce get caught immediately after the robbery rather than months later). And he got first-rate talent. The film is shot by Geoffrey Unsworth, the Oscar-winning cinematographer on one of his last jobs (he would die before the film was released) and scored by Jerry Goldsmith just a year before he would create the iconic score for the first Star Trek. The film always looks good, with great costumes and sets and the music is quite good.
The film is always compelling, has some very good humor, some nice sexy scenes and is thrilling as can be when Connery is up on the roof of the train, a great stunt that Connery did himself.
But there’s one more thing as well. Start to make a list of all the great actors in film history. Then cross off everyone who’s ever been nominated for an Oscar. Who’s still sitting there near the top of the list? My guess is somewhere near the top is going to be Donald Sutherland. Sutherland is perfect here as Agar, the crack screwsman who is so vital to Pierce’s plans. He’s got the perfect look for the role and the age (he would keep an almost identical look for his role in Murder by Decree later the same year) and he always works perfectly in the role.
What is that is so often said? Three good scenes and no bad scenes? Well, this film has a lot of good scenes – like the escape from Newgate, or the crime itself. It has no bad scenes.