The Great Train Robbery – Michael Crichton (1975)

This book is *completely* different from my usual choice of books, but perhaps that is why I enjoyed it so much. Just a darned good story based on a real life event and set in Victorian times. (Bliss.) Crichton has so much talent in his little cells that he just makes the rest of us look bad. Sigh.

I had picked up this book initially thinking it was non-fiction about the Great Train Robbery of 1963 which occurred close to where I grew up in England. However, this was about another earlier Great Train Robbery in 1855 which also netted a big haul for the criminals and made the news, and the manner in which Crichton writes, made it all so exciting to read. I just whipped through this book just because it was so riveting a narrative.

The story starts from the beginning introducing the reader to Edward Pierce, the well-dressed and intelligent mastermind behind the crime. Along the way, we are introduced to other members of this gang, each with their own speciality in the criminal world: a locksmith, a man who can get through small spaces quickly, shady contacts in the industry… I think Crichton quite admires Pierce in some ways: his smarts, his ability to cross social class boundaries on all levels, his quick thinking. Crichton is also not shy about showing Pierce’s arrogance which can get him into some sticky situations, which, if he had known better, he would never have done. But this made it all the more exciting as you, the reader, knew the inside scoop and what the odds were.

London in the mid-1800’s was a city of contrasts: the extreme poverty and the extreme wealth existing side by side at the same time showcased why the life of crime was so attractive to many. And, as the author points out, most crime is done out of “greed not need” (which explains why Pierce was involved). That also holds true for the Great Train Robbery of 1963, although most of the spoils from that crime did not reach the actual criminals, instead being spent by disloyal friends and family whilst the original men were in prison. (How annoying would that be!)

It’s categorized as a historical novel and this categorization rescues it from irritating me as the book is full of descriptions of people’s thoughts and conversations. At first, I thought this to be a bit annoying, but when I stepped back and remembered that this was a novel (not non-fiction), then I quickly got over that hurdle. (I think I expected a lot of non-fiction standards in this despite it being a novel.)

You know what would have helped with the vocabulary problem? A glossary in the back or somewhere. As I got deeper into the book, I learned a few of the most common words but there were some that were hard to get outside of context. (But minor picky point really.)

Based on the robbery that occurred in mid-Victorian times, Crichton has obviously done his homework in researching the background of this. The characters constantly used historical criminal slang (a tad confusing at times until I went back and found what the words meant), and the author did a good job of giving the reader enough historical background to understand just *why* this crime was so notable at that time (e.g. Industrial Revolution, invention of steam trains, etc.). As I am currently really interested in Victorian times, the fact that this novel was set back then was icing on the cupcake. (Plus Crichton tosses in a lot of facts about the times in between the story which helps you understand why things were as they were.)

Crichton really knows how to write a cracking good read: chapters were short enough where it was easy to think “ok, just one more before I go to bed”, and quickly get sucked into the next one. There were a lot of characters but Crichton didn’t introduce them all at once, so you got to know them well along the way. And the narrative was just so exciting – honestly. Lots of action, the different personalities involved, and then the role of the police (who were quite a new concept back then).  Remember – there were no finger prints, no DNA, not much photography… None of the tools that help PDs today, so tracking down the criminals was a lot harder and much more time-consuming.

This train robbery also set me thinking about that other Great Train Robbery in 1963 which happened and so I searched the net for info on that as well. Again, a group of like-minded criminals, one master mind, and a complicated plan. I hadn’t realized that it happened fairly close to where I lived, and, like the earlier Great Train Robbery, this made the news all over the world. (It’s quite interesting if you want to google it.)

Anyhow, this was a nice fast-moving story that was well written and enjoyable at the same time. My friend would call it an “Ice Hockey Book” – very fast moving, tons of
action, not much depth. 🙂

(Bought second hand.)

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