So. Michael Crichton started writing in college under the name John Lange in the late 1960s. He wrote ten paperback thrillers—eight as by John Lange and two under other pseudonyms—right before (and shortly after) he sold bestsellers under his own name. And for a long time, those old John Lange thrillers were buried and forgotten by all but the most astute collectors. Hard Case Crime reprinted two of the John Lange novels with the author’s permission, and reprinted the other six shortly after the author’s passing. Binary was the last of the Lange novels, written after The Andomeda Strain and right before The Terminal Man, an interesting transition point in the career of one of the 20th Century’s most popular techno-thriller writers.
Political radical John Wright is planning something, but nobody knows what. John Graves, the federal agent in charge of his surveillance, thinks Wright is up to something nefarious—and with the president in town to make an appearance at the Republican National Convention, nobody wants to take any chances. As Graves’ investigation heats up, it’s clear Wright’s intentions are maniacal, and eventually Graves realizes he’s hijacked tons of nerve gas from an Army shipment. And if he doesn’t stop Wright by the end of the day, San Diego—packed with politicos in town for the Convention—will be saturated with a toxic nerve gas, killing millions. The trouble is, Wright is holding all the cards, and even knows what moves Graves will make before Graves does…
Earlier John Lange novels showed slivers of Michael Crichton’s later writing prowess, but buried it under more traditional potboiler narratives. Odds On was an entertaining if campy heist thriller, Grave Descend was in the vein of Peter Benchley or Clive Cussler. Binary reads like actual Crichton in style and theme: failed fail-safes, and the dark side of science. Wright is an intellectual who excels at everything he puts his mind to, and the novel is bookended with documents from the U.S. Army detailing the loopholes in their careful plans that led to the theft of nerve gas. There’s also the role of computers and technology, which is where you see Crichton’s future techno-thrillers taking shape.
That said, there are times where it is dull as dry toast. The chapter headings have an insidious countdown presumably leading towards a gas attack, but the “ticking bomb” effect that’s meant to evoke is lost when I’m reading several chapters of John Graves’ stumbling around in Bureaucracyland. Apart from the prologue and one chapter, it takes about a hundred pages before the novel gets up to speed, spending the rest of the time building little plot pieces that fall together during the finale. That does add to the finale, a madcap rush to figure out how to stop John Wright’s dastardly plan, which starts by figuring out how to get into a hotel room to disarm his bomb.
Seeing those little bits from earlier add up to give weight to the finale was worth the wait, as the finale is a battle of wits: Graves must get into a hotel room to disable to nerve gas bomb, with several layers of obstacles. That’s a long and taut finale that really impressed me. Some of the pieces, though, were painfully obvious. At one point Wright tests air speed with an anemometer and none of the agents can figure out what he’s up to, even though Graves’ theory at the time revolves around a radioactive attack, something that could be spread (or dispersed) by wind. Maybe I’ve just seen that trope enough to make the connection, because Binary certainly isn’t a pioneer on that front.
I’ve read four Lange novels thus far, and while I repeat that Binary is the closest to Crichton’s later works, I felt it was the weakest of the bunch. The novel felt underdeveloped to me, I guess to keep its plotting tight and intricate, leaving us with a book half the size of Odds On (or a third the size of his later works). The characterization is wafer-thin, and most exist just to lampoon government bureaucracy; the rest—John Graves and John Wright, a good example of why not to use the same name for your villain and hero—are held up as geniuses in their fields, making the ending an even-matched battle over which John can out-think the other.
Binary isn’t much more than a potboiler, an entertaining thriller that becomes gripping once it’s shown you all its pieces and put them in play. Nothing in it comes as much of a surprise, though it can be effective, such as its climactic puzzle which moves at a perfect pace and gives the finale the zest the early chapters lacked. Come to think of it, the novel is like a puzzle in many ways: in the beginning you see the complete picture on the box—the Army document/prologue about the heist of some chemicals—then you spend the rest of the time inspecting those pieces and putting together the big picture. For all its flaws, the novel gets so many things right: this is the pure thriller experience, stripped of all adornment to get down to the important stuff.