The Great Train Robbery, by Michael Crichton
I read this book shortly after it came out in 1975 and decided to give it another read. It’s the third book that Michael Crichton published under his own name, setting it somewhere between Andromeda Strain and Congo.
The book is a fictionalization of an event from 1855 known in the United Kingdom as The Great Gold Robbery. It was an amazingly complicated heist of gold from a moving train. The gold was headed to Crimea to pay soldiers involved in the Crimean War. By the time the train reached Paris it was discovered that the gold had been replaced by lead shot.
The book strays from the actual robbery in several ways, including some name alterations, but is a good piece of fiction. In the book a crook named Edward Pierce, who dresses and sounds like someone from the upper class, organizes the robbery using a variety of people from the “criminal class” of London, some of whom don’t even know the details of the crime is. The main issue to overcome is that the gold will be in a safe that requires four keys to open. So much of the work is a confidence game to get copies of the keys from various bank and train company employees. This includes the romancing of a banker’s daughter and careful timing of the guards at a train station. Crichton explains that this was a time before dynamite, so keyed locks were a definite barrier.
Along with the intricacies of the caper Crichton includes other bits of information from the period. These include the prevalence of prostitutes in Victorian England, the awful boredom of being a Victorian woman, and the horrors of the Crimean War, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the worst military blunders in history nevertheless honored in poetry.
In some cases it’s a travesty to change history, but Crichton makes the theft far more interesting and intricate than the true robbery. An elegant conman leading a group of specialized thieves is far more interesting than some railway employees planning what was a well-timed robbery. In real life the criminals were caught, tried, and did their time (only after one felt cheated and told the whole story to police). In this book there is a bit of mystery left at the end.
Even after forty years it’s an engaging story and one in which the reader can root for ingenious criminals overcoming some stodgy and hypocritical toffs.