It’s well-known (by those who care) that Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park and ‘ER’ fame) wrote under a pen name during the early stages of his career: specifically, when he was a student at Harvard Medical School and didn’t want his professors to take him any less seriously as a doctor-in-training.
The name he chose was John Lange, and between 1966 and 1972 he published eight books: Odds On, Scratch One, Easy Go, Zero Cool, The Venom Business, Drug of Choice, Binary and, of course, Grave Descend.
Now, all eight novels have been republished by Hard Case Crime, who have gained some fame recently for their commitment to bringing old-school hardboiled crime novels back from the dead (so to speak). And with exceptional cover art too, a homage to the golden-age of pulp:
Grave Descend is the first of these that I have had the pleasure to read.
The story focusses on James McGregor, a former marine, now a salvage diver working out of Kingston, Jamaica. He is contracted by a marine insurance investigator named Arthur Wayne to investigate the wreck of a luxury yacht called (you guessed it) Grave Descend. Unfortunately, it’s not your typical salvage job: there are special considerations involving the beautiful survivor Monica Grant, the yacht’s owner (a wealthy industrialist), and the owner’s wife…
Then there’s the fact that nobody’s story regarding the sinking of the Grave Descend seems to make sense.
McGregor takes the job though: they’re offering him too much money not too. Pretty soon though he’s up to his neck in something sinister; and if he’s not careful, it’ll be his neck that’s on the chopping block!
So there you have it: exotic location, beautiful (and dangerous) women, money and power – the perfect recipe for a suspense novel. Certainly, Michael (or John) learnt his lessons well – not only are all these clichés present, but surprisingly, they don’t feel tired and boring. Grave Descend is a blast from start to finish: a quick read (approx. 150 pages) that hits all the right marks, even if it does feel a little rushed towards the end.
In fact, the ending was the only part that wasn’t completely satisfying. But maybe that’s the point: nothing in life is ever as clean-cut and “all tied-up” as modern storytelling would have us believe, and one of the hallmarks of a “good” hardboiled tale is its commitment to portraying the uncomfortable and unpleasant aspects of life. Sometimes things don’t work out. And sometimes people don’t do the things that are in their best interests.
That’s Grave Descend.
Verdict: 3.5 stars (out of 5)