Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Carolyn Hart; Gravetapping: A Case of Need Michael Crichton

From Carolyn Hart:
Annie and Max will be back

I penned a Farewell to Death on Demand this spring, but a funny thing happened on the way to Life Without Annie and Max. A knock on my door. There stood Annie, a glint in her gray eyes, a determined tilt to her chin. “What are you thinking?” Max was right behind her, his usual easy going smile absent. “No more island sunshine? No alligators basking on a bank? No more laughter?” Annie and Max looked me in the eye and said, “We’re here to stay.” 
    Do I want to see the displays at Death on Demand, catch up on the new mysteries, talk about old favorites? Or drop into Confidential Commissions and have a slice of Barb’s lemon pie?
    Oh, yes. The scent of the ocean, the rattle of magnolia leaves, the grace and elegance of Spanish moss, hot heavy summer days, windy walks on a chilly winter beach, all await on the small sea island of Broward’s Rock. I’ll see everyone again, ebullient Annie, charming Max, curmudgeonly author Emma Clyde, mystery maven Henny Brawley, ditzy mother-in-law Laurel Darling Roethke, intense reporter Marian Kenyon, stalwart police chief Billy Cameron, observant officer Hyla Harrison . . .
    I realized I’d miss them too much. So I changed my mind and hope to write their 26th adventure as soon as Bailey Ruth persuades a lovelorn  ghost to climb the shining stairs to Heaven.
    And now for Annie and Max’s 25th (and continuing) adventure:
     DON’T GO HOME – Annie is hosting a party to celebrate a successful Southern literary icon and island native and his best selling novel, Don’t Go Home. The local newspaper announces that the author intends to reveal the real life island inspirations behind his characters and the dark secrets in their lives. Reporter Marian Kenyon, Annie and Max’s good friend, quarrels bitterly with the author. When his body is found, Annie knows her friend will be a suspect. Despite an array of people who feared the author’s revelations and Annie’s promise to Max that she will steer clear of sleuthing, Annie is drawn into the hunt because the police may close the book on Marian unless Annie finds the truth.

Posted: 23 Mar 2015 02:16 PM PDT
Michael Crichton was a writer who knew how to write, and what he chose to write seemingly meant something to him.  His later novels tended to deal with science, technology and ethics, and his early works—particularly the novels written “as by”—dealt with both youth and culture in a strikingly simple and meaningful manner.  His 1968 novel A Case of Need written as by Jeffery Hudson is not only the best of his early works, but it is also arguably his best novel.

John Berry is a pathologist at a Boston hospital and the novel opens with a heart surgeon ranting about losing a patient on the table.  Berry doesn’t pay much attention because this is how the surgeon deals with the stress and anger of a lost patient.  The rant, like everything in the novel, has the subtle feel of reality and prepares the scene for the main crux of the novel: an abortion gone wrong.  A procedure that was illegal when the novel was published and no less controversial than it is today.

Dr. Art Lee is an OBGYN and an abortionist.  He is also one of John Berry’s best friends.  When a young woman dies in an ER hemorrhaging from a botched abortion, Dr. Lee is the primary suspect.  This sets the novel in motion—John Berry is certain his friend didn’t perform the procedure and he wants to clear Dr. Lee’s name, but his motives become less clear as the novel unravels.

A Case of Need is a crossroads novel between Mr Crichton’s early pulp adventure novels and his larger, more complex modern novels.  It is something like a DMZ between the John Lange thrillers and The Andromeda Strain.  It features many of the hallmarks of his later works, particularly cultural and medical ethics, but it is wrapped in a damn terrific mystery.  It won an Edgar in 1969 for best novel and it represents Crichton’s talent at its highest.

What truly separates A Case of Need from the herd is its setting, theme and dialogue.  The setting is the world of medicine.  It clearly focuses the reader’s attention on not only what it is like, or was like, to be a work-a-day physician, but it also thematically explores the ethical decisions that lurk in the industry.  It gives a murky representation of abortion and its relation to both physicians who perform the procedure and those who do not. And the dialogue is vintage Crichton; it moves the story forward in quick and linear fashion.

There really isn’t anything about the novel that is weak or underdeveloped.  The prose is strong and vivid—

“All heart surgeons are bastards, and Conway is no exception. He came storming into the path lab at 8:30 in the morning, still wearing his green surgical gown and cap, and he was furious.”

The mystery is plotted perfectly and the suspense is built as well as any novel I have read.  It begins with what appears to be a moment of subterfuge—the angry heart surgeon—but ties the seemingly out-of-place opening scene perfectly into the theme of the story; the imperfect surgeon struggling with his own limitations and balancing the imperfections of society with the needs and demands of his patients.

A Case of Need is a terrific novel that is as relevant and entertaining today as it was forty years ago.  In a sense it is very much a novel of its time, but it also has a timeless quality in that the questions it never quite answers will continue to debated generations from now.  And it very well may be the evidence we need to prove Michael Crichton was from another world.  He really was that good, and this novel proves it.

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