When Hard Case Crime originally republished Zero Cool and Grave Descend, they did so with their author remaining behind his John Lange pseudonym (much, I assume, to Hard Case’s chagrin, since Stephan King’s name on The Colorado Kid brought the series far into the limelight). There’s a good reason for that; let’s get one thing straight, this is rough writing from an early Crichton, and they’re more similar to his earlier hits like The Andromeda Strain or The Terminal Man than his more famous later works.
Even then, they lacked the spit and polish to see re-release under the Crichton name during the author’s lifetime. I avoided making the revelation in my last two reviews to stave off the inevitable comparisons between the John Lange novels and the Michael Crichton ones. That’s tricker when his real name is on the cover.
The Reina is an super-luxury hotel on the Spanish Riviera, making up for its isolated location with an array of five-star services: not just swimming pools and a bar but restaurants, salons, stores. As one character points out, it’s like an opulent cruise liner on land; it caters to the wealthiest tourists, and is slated to be the blueprint for numerous competitors. It’s located in the heart of Franco’s authoritarian Spain, an oppressive police-state. And three men plan on robbing it blind.
Miguel is a Latino-American smuggler, street-smart and able to acquire any object for a price. Bryan is a Brit working the gray side of the underworld, undertaking contract hits, thefts, and snatches for the government. And Jencks is the mastermind gambler; logical and precise, he’s come up with a daring plan to nab not just the payroll of the Reina, but the jewels and cash of its guests as well.
What they weren’t expecting was a bevy of beautiful women; Allan Brady, a notorious con-man with his own agenda; the mysterious Miss Shaw, the French-Algerian heavy fronting as her chauffeur, and the cargo of Moroccan drugs in her Lincoln Continental; or the dysfunctional couple Peter and Jenny, a college boy slavering after a girl who’ll sleep with anyone but him…
This is Crichton’s first book, a 24-year-old grad student at Harvard Medical School, and that aforementioned roughness weighs on it heavily. The characters are flimsy and almost all superhuman in terms of strength, cunning, beauty, and lust. You can tell the novel was written by a horny 20-something from all the sex in it; characters of both gender are so sex-starved that they’d stick it in mud if it wriggled. The sex scenes range from softcore porn to rather explicit, and since the book is roughly 50% ham-handed sex scenes, it’s definitely not a book for the more conservative or prudish Crichton fan.
On the other hand, we see a glimmer of some of the bestselling author that is to come. The prose isn’t bad, though it’s rough and unpolished at times; some sentences are simplistic, and the plot is riddled with holes. The characters are flimsy paragons without flaw, and only a few of them have real character, not just unique traits or descriptors. The plotting is fast and tense; despite most of the novel following the protagonists scoping out the hotel and sleeping with anything that moves, there’s enough mystery to keep things going until the inevitable string of unforeseen complications arise. And when the heist begins, the novel zips along at a rapid pace until its conclusion. It lacks the mystery and unknown of some of Crichton’s later works, though it’s a fast and entertaining thriller.
Crichton’s later love of over-reliance on technology, failed fail-safes, and chaos theory is in full swing; Jencks checked the heist using a room-spanning IBM 7090, its commands coming from a three-foot box worth of punch-cards and read via FORTRAN. That use of a computer has dated the novel egregiously considering the growth of electronics, the microchip, etc., but in 1966 it must have been a brilliant new idea—use the same type of computer that NASA used for the Mercury and Gemini space flights, but to plan a heist using CRIPA (CRItical Path Analysis). The computer estimated a chance of success up to .89 (or 89%), depending on different variables; save for the unexpected, the heist cannot go wrong. When the unexpected rears its head, the “sure thing” heist is thrown into a tailspin.
Crichton’s nigh-household name has garnered two almost-simultaneous releases. At $9.95 each, you can get the trade paperbacks from Hard Case, and for $7.99 or less you can get the Nook/Kindle/Kobo/iBooks/etc. e-copies from Open Road Media. We really do live in an age rich beyond measure in terms of our media availability; formerly you’d have to fork over $50-100+ to get the original paperback version on AbeBooks, Powell’s, or eBay.
Odds On is a fascinating look at the start of Crichton’s career; I see a lot more of the author he would become in this novel than I did in Zero Cool or Grave Descend (which may be why he chose those for the original Hard Case re-releases). I wouldn’t argue that this one is the best of the three; all of them read like summer popcorn flicks, focusing on speed and thrills to distract from the thin characters and plot holes. Odds On has more sex than plot, which is not something I could say of the other two as they’re comparatively puritan; they also have more complexity, which means more plot holes.
The bottom line is that this is a very rough, very fast early novel by Crichton. If he’d never printed anything beyond the novels he wrote as John Lange, he would have fallen into complete obscurity. Instead, with a lengthy and well-known career behind him, the Lange books stick out as the drafts for later achievements. Odds On is a good beach read, great entertainment that’s just a bit air-headed and more than a little sex-starved. Readers shouldn’t go into it expecting some lost Crichton masterpiece, but a decent 1960s heist thriller that just so happens to involve smut and a computer. While I enjoyed it, Odds On felt thin and padded at times; take away some of the pointless meandering and the relationship/sex parts and you’d have a very short book indeed.