Before Jurassic Park, there was The Great Train Robbery. (Well, there was also Andromeda Strain and a few other books, but that doesn’t make so dramatic an opening sentence, now does it?)
Hopefully, it will come as no surprise to anyone that the book concerns a train robbery. Set in 1854-1957, Edward Pierce (aka John Simms and a handful of other aliases) prepares to steal £12,000 worth of gold bullion intended to fund (in part) the Crimean War. The bullion, approximately 250 pounds in weight, is shipped in two Chubb safes on the South Eastern Railway Company, each with two locks to secure them. The first and most time consuming task is to make copies of the four keys—two of which are kept in the offices of the line’s London terminus and two of which are held (one apiece) by two bank officials, Mr. Trent and Mr. Fowler. To do this, he engages master “screwsman”1 Robert Agar and assorted other associates (some more criminal than others): his mistress Miriam, snakesman2 Clean Willy, a rogue cabbie/mugger/all around thug Barlow, and several lesser figures. They break into the Southeastern Railroad offices, befriend the two bank officials, get an amount of lead shot equivalent in weight to that of the bullion, bribe the railroad guard assigned to the baggage car in which the gold is shipped. Everything is going according to plan…when there is a change in railroad policy requiring a change in plans.
Shortly before the planned heist, a wealthy nobleman loses a bet but cannot bring himself to relinquish the case of Madeira he promised. Instead he ships a case of nothing at all; when the trickery is discovered, the railway line adds extra security to the baggage car, most notably an injunction against anyone riding in the car other than Burgess the railway guard, and a lock is placed on the outside of the car. Agar is smuggled aboard, posing as a cholera victim left just long enough to get really stinky3, but how to get the gold out of the car once Agar’s pulled it? Pierce must scramble the length of the train, hang off the side of the car to pick the lock and struggle back in the length of time the train takes to traverse a particularly deserted section of track. He manages it, though he is caught by virtue of the fact that his efforts atop the train have destroyed his clothing.
He is put on trial, and blandly turns aside all the interrogation and investigations, but escapes, with the 99% certain help of Miriam and Barlow.
Fact or fiction? A mix of the two, in approximately equal parts. One of the shipments of Crimean gold was stolen, in approximately the manner described in Crichton’s book, although he changed the names of the primary participants from William Pierce and Edward Agar. We cannot know, however, exactly what planning went into the effort, and this is the fascinating tale that Crichton weaves: how to find a key hidden amidst the frilly frippery of a properly decorated Victorian mansion? will Pierce make it not once but twice along the train despite having no mountaineering experience? how did one cure The French Disease prior to lovely medical advances such as penicillin? Coming back to it as an adult, I can only admire how Crichton managed to weave all that criminal jargon and historical background into a novel that’s only 266 pages (in hardcover) and widely spaced at that without seeming stilted.
What to read next? Aside from the nonfiction book about the theft in question, The First Great Train Robbery by Hanrahan which is due out in September, I’d suggest some of Crichton’s earlier works, in particular Eaters of the Dead. Who knew a book written on a bet could be so plausible?
1expert at copying keys
2expert, usually small in stature and physique, in slithering through small apertures
3combination of makeup that would make the Wicked Witch of the West look rosy-cheeked and a very dead cat