In 1975, Michael Crichton departed from his best-selling style by writing The Great Train Robbery. Unlike his previous bestseller, A Case of Need and The Andromeda Strain, The Great Train Robbery does not deal with Crichton's area of expertise: science and medicine. Instead, Crichton moves his typically suspenseful plot to Victorian England. The Great Train Robbery allowed Crichton again to demonstrate his ability not only to create a suspenseful plot, but also to combine it with useful background information. Another portion of Crichton's successful formula was a social theme throughout his novels. Besides Crichton's fame and formula, the timing of publication added to The Great Train Robbery's success. Crichton's unique formula, treatment of criminal behavior, previous success as a writer and the timing of the publishing of The Great Train Robbery all collectively made the novel a success.
The Great Train Robbery follows the specific formula characteristic of all Crichton fiction. The first element of the Crichton formula is the assumption that the events within the story have already happened. This assumption leads to a journalistic style of reporting and is in The Great Train Robbery as well as in The Andromeda Strain. Edmund Fuller described this documentary style as an "intregal part of the fiction" in a review of The Andromeda Strain. (Fuller 1969). "His story does not take place now, rather it is presumed to be finished ? From the start, Crichton's narrative device is documentary reporting." Because events have already happened, Crichton reports rather than tells them. The Great Train Robbery also employs this same technique. Crichton relies on quotes from the trial of Edward Pierce throughout the novel. In the introduction of the novel, Crichton describes the source of his narrative. "Many of its features were brought to light in the trial of Burgess, Agar and Pierce, the chief participants in The Great Train Robbery. They were all apprehended in 1856, nearly two years after the event. Their voluminous courtroom testimony is preserved, along with journalistic accounts of the day. It is from these sources that the following narrative is assembled"(xviii). Crichton reports the events of The Great Train Robbery, like those in The Andromeda Strain with the knowledge of the outcome. Another next element in the Crichton's formula for fiction is interaction between the plot and the background information. The Andromeda Strain contains this interaction between the "quasi-medical subject" and the story that makes an otherwise routine and sour tale more tantalizing by the spun sugar of specific factual data"(Fremont). Eliot Fremont-Smith specifically applies this interaction to The Great Train Robbery. "What's great about 'The Great Train Robbery' is the perfect interdependence of the specific caper mechanics and the background information, which delves in to nearly every aspect of Victorian English life. Thus, we not only learn all about the railway revolution, but also about then-prevalent misconception on the subject of aerodynamics, these having a direct effect upon the robbery"(Fremont). The actual robbery would not have taken place without the railroads and the misconceptions on aerodynamics. Whether using medical ideas in The Andromeda Strain or Victorian England in The Great Train Robbery, Crichton allows the details to affect the plot of his stories. The final aspect of Crichton's formula for fiction is a social theme or message. In The Andromeda Strain, Crichton's message is about exploiting science and its power. "Although, like most science-fiction writers, he fails to create characters of human dimension, he is concerned with moral values, and makes graphic the dangers of exploiting science for such goals as the perfection of chemical and biological warfare techniques"(Cooper). Crichton's social message is clear that it is dangerous to exploit science for chemical or biological warfare. The Great Train Robbery also has a message. Crichton shows the hypocrisy at all levels of Victorian Society. "Society, even an outwardly moralistic one like Victorian England, is riddled with hypocrisy at all levels, which destroys the chances for achieving any social ideals"(Trembley 69). The Great Train Robbery demonstrates the hypocrisy and how that hypocrisy hinders society from reaching its specific goal. Crichton's formula for fiction: a reporting style, with a interaction of the plot and background information, and a social theme all come together in The Great Train Robbery helping to make the novel a success.
Crichton's accomplishments in writing created a following that would help thrust many of his next books, including The Great Train Robbery, to bestseller status. By 1975, Michael Crichton had established himself as a well-known writer. He wrote his first bestseller, A Case of Need, in 1968 while in medical school at Harvard under the pen name Jeffery Hudson. His next novel, The Andromeda Strain was greeted with the same success. "Michael Crichton's first novel published under his own name, The Andromeda Strain (1969), rocketed to immediate popularity. It gripped millions of readers and inspired a successful film adaptation" (Trembley 31). Critics and fans alike enjoyed Crichton's The Andromeda Strain. Newsweek assured its readers that the science fiction "genre is alive and well in the promising person of Michael Crichton" (Cooper 125). The Andromeda Strain established Michael Crichton as a science-fiction writer. Crichton wrote screenplays such as Extreme Close-up (1973) and Westworld (1973) making himself well-know and successful in yet another area. (Gale Biography 3) The Great Train Robbery reached bestseller status partly due to Michael Crichton's fame. The novel itself spent sixty-four total weeks upon the Publisher's Weekly and New York Times Bestsellers List. The mass-market edition, published by Bantam, peaked at number two in the week of July 12, 1976. This peak was the highest of any of the first editions published by either Knopf or Bantam. (Justice, 81). However, Michael Crichton's continued success with novels such as Congo, Sphere, Jurassic Park and The Lost World continue to help the success of The Great Train Robbery. In a recent publication of The Great Train Robbery the cover art not only included a picture of a moving train but also the phrase "from the author of Jurassic Park". The Ballantine Books trade edition published in 1997, features a cover that looks like it belongs to a series of novels. The novel cover has Crichton's name in big, bold letters on top followed by the title in a smaller font and then an art drawing of an antique train. The 1997 Ballantine Books trade edition of other novels such as Jurassic Park and Congo also feature the same style cover. The big name on top followed by the title then an art drawing. The only difference is the color schemes and art drawings. This example of similar covers demonstrates the importance of Michael Crichton in the best-seller history of The Great Train Robbery. His fame drove the success and continued success of The Great Train Robbery.
Crichton's unique treatment of crime throughout The Great Train Robbery also contributed to its success. Crichton begins his novel with the reason why The Great Train Robbery was great by first explaining the Victorian view on crime. To Victorians, the advent of new commutations, gas lighting, and the railroad indicate that society was progressing. According to this theory "[p]rogess in physical conditions led inevitably to the eradication of social evils and criminal behavior"(xv). Victorians believed that by progress, crime could be eliminated. This theory explains why The Great Train Robbery was so shocking. "[The] criminal class had found a way to prey upon progress - and indeed to carry out a crime aboard the very hallmark of progress, the railway"(xv). The Great Train Robbery is shocking because Victorians thought crime was decreasing because of progress. They never imagined that crime would actually prey upon progress. Crichton then asserts a new, scholarly public view of criminal behavior.
Crime is not a consequence of poverty, but a result of greed
Criminals are intelligent
Crime pays better than honest labor
Most crimes remain unpunished. (xvi)
The Great Train Robbery proves Crichton's points. Edward Pierce embodies these ideals of criminal behavior. He says he only commits the crime because he "wanted the money"(279). Because much of twentieth century society is based upon gaining material things, Pierce becomes a hero. "Edward Pierce is the perfect criminal hero for a society that admires independence and wealth"(68). Crichton does not condone Pierce's behavior, but rather elevated him to heroic status. Crichton's treatment of greedy criminal behavior succeeds because "[t]wentieth-century audiences admire the bravado and intelligence of the mastermind Pierce.. While our moral attitudes require condemnation of crime, our capitalistic attitudes applaud ingenuity in the spirit of making money" (Trembley 74). Because readers admire Pierce, they overlook his criminal tendencies. The treatment of criminal behavior helps The Great Train Robbery succeed by appealing to the twentieth century audience.
The timing of publication also played an important role in the success of The Great Train Robbery. The early 1970s were a turbulent time in America. The Vietnam War, its atrocities and problems at home dominated the news and focus of all Americans. By 1975, Americans had grown numb and tired of this lengthy war. Another event, which drastically shaped American culture in the early 1970s, was Watergate and subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon. Because of these events, Americans were disenchanted with American government. They wanted to escape American life. Crichton's The Great Train Robbery created a time machine for many Americans. Publisher's Weekly describes the novel as "[e]scapism of the first order from a writer who has most expertly steeped himself in the past" (Bannon). Crichton's precisely detailed Victorian element gives Americans an escape from the disorder after the Vietnam and Watergate. The 1975 Bestseller list indicates escapism on a large scale in the Untied States. Other fiction novels on the 1975 Bestseller list include: "Curtain, in which the much-loved Belgian detective Hercule Poirot made his final appearance"; "Looking for Mister Goodbar, based on a real life New York City murder"; "The Eagle Has Landed is an adventure story about an attempt by German paratroopers to kidnap Winston Churchill." (Bowker 433). Another aspect of the timing of the publication of The Great Train Robbery was the growing interest in Victorian England. In the 1960s and 70s, Victorian England became a society that many Americans focused upon. Many activists compared life in the late 1960s and 70s to the repressive age of Victorian England. Early 1970s literature reflects this with the rise in interest in the Victorain Age. "Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery (Knopf; 266 pages $7.95) happily contributes to the current revival of British imperial style" (Time). In many reviews, The Great Train Robbery is compared with another Victorian novel .The Great Victorian Collection by Brain Moore. In Moore's novel his main character, Anthony Maloney "dreams of extraordinary collection of Victorian artifacts: fountains, locomotives, furniture, paintings, statues, clothing, jewelry, toys, pornography, and what not" (Fuller 1975). Moore's novel, which was also published during the summer of 1975, takes part in a growing interest towards Victorian England. The publication of The Great Train Robbery in the 1970s was successful due to its escapist and Victorian elements.
Many factors contributed to the success of The Great Train Robbery. The author himself contributed in two ways to the accomplishments of the novel. The first being his actual success and following as an author. Crichton was famous when the book was published, and continues to be famous today. Both of these factors work together in making the novel a bestseller. The other way in which Crichton contributes to the novel is his application of his formula for fiction. His three elements: a reporting style, the interaction of plot and background, and the social theme all unite in The Great Train Robbery. Crichton's portrayal of crime as motivated simply by greed appealed to the twentieth century side of many Americans. Finally, the timing of the publication of the novel contributed to its success. The Great Train Robbery not only provided an escape to the turbulent 1970s, but a connection to the repressive age of Victorian England.
Bannon, Barbara A. "The Great Train Robbery". Publisher's Weekly. 11 June 1975. P 39
Cooper, Arthur. "Three Minutes To Death". Newsweek. 26 May 1969 125-126.
Crichton, Michael. The Great Train Robbery. New York: Ballantine, 1997.
"Crushers and Subgumshoes" Time. 14 July 1975. P 66
Fuller, Edmund. "Getting Out The Bugs". Wall Street Journal. 1 July 1969.
Fuller, Edmund. "Ripping Off A Load Of Gold" Wall Street Journal. 30 June 1975.
Fremont-Smith, Eliot. "Making Book". Village Voice. 5 December 1975. p 75
Justice. Bestseller Index.
The Bowker Annual of Library And Book Trade Information. Ed: Miele, Madeline; Roberta Mobre and Sarah Prakker. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1976.
Trembley, Elizabeth A. Michael Crichton: A Critic Companion. Wesport: Greenwood P, 1996.