Calling Michael Crichton multi-talented is like calling a Stradivarius a fiddle. The man graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, he lectured in anthropology at Cambridge, he was a doctor, he wrote bestselling novels from the time he was 27 on (The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery, Congo, Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Rising Sun, etc., etc.), he wrote and/or directed hit movies (Westworld, Coma, Twister), he created one of the most successful TV series ever (ER), he designed computer games (Amazon) - and if that's not enough, he was nearly seven feet tall and ridiculously handsome to boot. If you had to imagine someone who would not have a reason to wish he was someone else, it would be hard to come up with a better candidate.
Yet early in his career Michael Crichton did choose to be someone else -- a fellow named John Lange.
He was in Harvard Medical School at the time and writing paperback crime novels on the side, either to pay the bills or for the practice or just for fun - stories vary. Harvard might have looked askance at one of their students spending their time in this way (especially after reading some of the steamier scenes), so he hid behind another identity. Of course, Crichton graduated from med school in 1969 and by that point had already made a reputation for himself under his own name - but he kept writing books as John Lange for several more years. One has to imagine he enjoyed it, maybe even more as his fame grew. Like Stephen King pretending to be Richard Bachman or J.K. Rowling pretending to be Robert Galbraith, Crichton seems to have liked getting to wear another man's identity now and again, to step out as someone else.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that one of the very first things he wrote as John Lange was a book about mistaken identity. The first Lange novel, Odds On, was a sexy heist novel sort of in the spirit of an Ocean's Eleven movie. But the second, Scratch One, is about a Harvard-educated lawyer who travels to the south of France to buy a villa for a client only to find himself mistaken for an American secret agent who's been assigned to find and kill a group of international terrorists. The terrorists think he's the agent, the French police think he's the agent, his British contacts think he's the agent - and the question is, can he survive long enough to prove to everyone that he's not?
It's a great read, a heady brew of adrenaline and fun, the sort of thing I imagine provided a very nice break from the med school grind. And even for the character in the book, while the risk of violent death probably cuts into the fun, there are certainly compensations. (What red-blooded man would mind being mistaken for James Bond if it's a Bond Girl that's doing the mistaking?)
So: a book about a man who isn't who he seems, written by an author who wasn't who he seemed.
The plot begins to twist…
Excerpt from Scratch One, by Michael Crichton:
Monday: Principauté de Monaco
Victor Jenning, tanned and very fit, walked down the steps of the Casino into the cool night air. They were already bringing his blood-red Lamborghini around from the lot. It was a new car, and Jenning was pleased with it-Carrozzeria Touring body mounted over a 3.5 liter V-12 engine that ran smoothly at 240 kilometers an hour. It was a hardtop, of course. Jenning loathed driving fast in an open car-unless he was racing-and he had rolled enough cars to have a healthy respect for solid protection overhead.
People were gathering to admire the car as he came to the bottom of the steps. It was only natural; the car had never been produced prior to 1965, when old Ferrucio Lamborghini, the tractor and oil burner tycoon, had established a limited production shop in Cento, just a few miles from Ferrari's plant at Maranello. Three hundred Lamborghinis were made a year, so it was still quite a rarity. It had cost him $14,000.
As he made his way around the crowd, he answered their questions with smiles and a slightly bored voice, then got in behind the wheel. He was a jaded man, and so felt only mild pride, but it was sufficient to make him forget-momentarily at least-the ten thousand dollars he had just dropped that night at baccarat, in a particularly poor run of luck.
He started the engine, listening with satisfaction to the bass growl from the twin exhausts. The crowd parted, and he reached down for the lights. His hand flicked on the windshield wipers, and he had a twinge of embarrassment. Damn! It was painfully obvious that he'd owned the car just a week. He bent over to peer at the switches.
At that moment his windshield shattered in front of him.
The crowd gasped; somebody screamed. Another shot, and Jenning, who had immediately dropped as low as he could, felt pain in his right shoulder. He turned on the lights, released the brake, and put the car quickly into reverse. Still hunched over, he roared backward, sat up, spun the wheel around, and tore off into the night. Air blew through the gaping hole in his windshield, and he swore to himself.
Victor Jenning was a man accustomed to attempts on his life. There had been four in the last two years. None had come close to succeeding, though he had a slight limp as a result of the second. In a strange way, he did not mind the assassination attempts-they were part of the game, one of the risks in his line of work. But he hated to see his new car damaged. It would take weeks, now, to get a new windshield fitted properly.
As he drove through the dark streets of Monaco toward the doctor, he was so furious that he did not bother to reflect that, had he known how to work his lights, he would probably be dead.
Tuesday: Cairo, Egypt
One of the Arabs held a gun. "It will not be long now," he said pleasantly.
In the back seat of the taxi, the European stared at the gun, at the Egyptian holding it, and at the back of the neck of the driver. They sped through the dark streets of the city.
"Where are you taking me?" he said. He was French, and spoke Arabic with a slurred accent.
"To a meeting. Your presence is desired."
"Then why the gun?"
The Frenchman sat back and lit a cigarette. He remained cool; it was part of his training. He had been in tight situations before, and he had always managed to escape safely.
The car left the city and headed south, into the desert. It was a moonless May night, black and cool. The French man could see the outlines of the palm trees that lined the road.
"Who is this person I am meeting?"
The Arab laughed softly: "You know him."
They drove for ten minutes, and then the Arab with the gun said, "Here."
The driver pulled off the road, onto the sand. The Nile was a few hundred yards away.
The car stopped. "Out," the Arab said, motioning with the gun.
The Frenchman got out and looked around. "I don't see anybody."
"Have patience. He will be here soon." The Arab drew a pair of handcuffs from his pocket and handed them to the driver. To the Frenchman, he said, "If you please. Our man is rather nervous. This will reassure him."
"I don't think-"
The Arab shook his head. "No arguments, please."
The Frenchman hesitated, then turned and held his hands behind his back. The driver clicked the handcuffs shut.
"Good," said the Arab with the gun. "Now we will go to the river, and wait."
They walked silently across the sand. No one spoke. The Frenchman was worried, now. He had made a mistake, he was sure of it.
It happened with lightning swiftness.
One of the Arabs tripped him, and he pitched forward on his face into the sand. Strong hands gripped his neck, forced his head down. He felt the grainy sand on his lips, in his eyes and nose. He struggled and kicked, but the Arabs held him firmly. His mind began to reel, and then blackness seeped over him.
The Arabs stepped back.
"Stupid fool," one said.
The driver removed the handcuffs. Each man took one leg, and they dragged the body to the river. The Arab put his gun away and held the body underwater with his foot until it sank. It would rise to the surface later, when it was bloated and decomposing. But that would not be for several days.
The body sank. A few final bubbles broke the calm water, and then, nothing.
Friday: Estoril, Portugal
The man walked across the rocks in his bare feet, looking into the setting sun. The waves of the Atlantic crashed into the rock. He was an American, a minor consular official attached to the office in Barcelona. He had received news of his transfer to Nice just three days before, and had decided to relax for a few days before moving. He was accustomed to traveling, and did it easily, so there were no major preparations to look after. Lisbon had been the perfect choice for a short break. He had been here during the war, and loved it deeply. Particularly this stretch of coast, west of the city, past the point where the Tagus River emptied into the ocean.
He smiled, breathed deeply, and reached in his pocket for cigarettes. To his right, the rocky shelf leading up from the sea ended in a sloping pine grove; to the left, the water rushed up against sharp, eroded stone. He was alone-few people came here at evening, this early in the season. He felt relaxed and cleansed after the bustle of Barcelona. The match flared in his hand, and he touched it to the cigarette. What the hell was he going to do in France, where cigarettes were so expensive?
Offshore, a fishing boat started its motor, and he listened to its faint puttering as it pulled away. He would have lobster tonight, he decided, in a little place in Cascais. Then he would return to his hotel and compose a letter to his girl in Barcelona, explaining that he had been sent away, suddenly, and was returning to the United States. The Spaniards were accustomed to hush-hush, sudden maneuverings among any kind of government officials; Maria would take it well. And although he would miss her, he was confident he could find a suitable replacement on the Riveria. Hell, if you couldn't find a girl there, you couldn't find one anywhere.
Behind him, there was a sharp crack! It was a sound he did not hear, for by that time, the bullet had entered the back of his head, smashing the occipital bone and burying itself deep in his cerebellum. He felt a momentary twinge of pain, and was pitched forward onto the rocks. His face smashed down hard, breaking the bones of his nose and jaw. Blood flowed out.
Two other men, neatly dressed in sport clothes, viewed the fallen body with satisfaction. The tide was coming in; within an hour, these rocks would be submerged, and the body carried out to sea. It was a good, clean, neat job. They were pleased.
Copyright © 1967 John Lange; Copyright Renewed, 2005, by Constant c Productions, Inc.
Charles Ardai is an American entrepreneur, writer, editor, and television producer. He is best known as founder and CEO of Juno, an Internet company, and founder and editor of Hard Case Crime, a line of pulp-style paperback crime novels.