The Great Train Robbery entertains and informs

Man in top hat watches a steam-drawntrain
The dust jacket of The Great Train Robbery tells part of the novel’s story.

In The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton’s masterfully blurs fact and fiction as he did in The Andromeda Strain.

This time Crichton takes readers to 1855 London, a teeming urban center where the immensely rich often live just across the street from the pathetically poor.

Edward Pierce, a man of unknown antecedents and unsurpassed effrontery, plans to steal the gold bullion being shipped from London to the continent to pay the British Army fighting in Crimea.

Pierce is a meticulous researcher, though his methodologies would not have been well regarded at Oxford or Cambridge.

To secure the four keys needed to open the two safes in which the bullion is transported, Pierce not only spends hour observing and timing the activities of railway employees, but also courts the daughter of one of the key holders and springs a noted cat-burglar from Newgate Prison.

Crichton laces the dialogue with the argot of London’s criminal class, declining to translate much of it, thereby intensifying the impression that he’s recording exactly what the thieves said.

Crichton surrounds the plot with vital trivia about Victorian England’s socioeconomic conditions, architecture, and burial practices.

Readers will close the novel better informed about nineteenth century history and very well entertained.

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. 266 p.
1975 bestseller #8. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Secret Woman: Implausible diversion

Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman is an old-fashioned mystery story arising from the Victorian aristocrats’ need for a male heir carry on the line.

Dust jacket of The Secret Woman
Book Club Edition dust jacket

The leading lady is Anna Brett, a orphan in the care of an eccentric maiden aunt who buys but rarely sells antique furniture in an English seaport dominated by the Crediton shipping firm.

When her aunt dies under mysterious circumstances, leaving an-all-but bankrupt business, Anna gets a job as governess Castle Crediton. She owes her job to Chantel Loman who had come to nurse Aunt Charlotte and became Anna’s confidant.

It’s Chantel who sees Anna has fallen hard for the Crediton’s bastard son, Captain Redvers Stretton, about whom dark things are hinted.

Chantel, who had become nurse to Captain Stretton’s disturbed wife, seems more interested in Rex Crediton, the acknowledged son and heir to the family’s fortune.

Lady Crediton plans for Rex to marry the daughter of a competing firm, effectively merging the two.

The Secret Woman contains only nice, appropriately Victorian upper-class murders: no blood in sight, no police on the premises.

Holt keeps the story moving so readers don’t think too hard about the multiple implausibilities in the story until after they’ve finished the tale.

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt
Doubleday, ©1970, Book Club Edition, 374 p.
1970 bestseller #8. My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni