There's a little more than four months left in the year 2014 but it's safe to say that as of today, August 19th, my nomination for the worst book I've read this year goes to THE VENOM BUSINESS by Michael Crichton. It's one of his earliest books, first published in 1970 when Crichton was just learning the business and publishing under the name "John Lange". All of the Crichton/Lange books have been reissued in handsome trade paperback editions by Hard Case Crime but despite the provocative cover art pictured above, this is a stinker through and through.
It's an over plotted, over written mess of a "thriller" that ironically enough, starts out fairly promisingly but very soon takes a turn for the worse. Crichton spins this yarn over the course of 384 pages, which is easily one hundred pages too many. One is left to wonder if this is Crichton's first draft or if any editor (then or now) ever touched this manuscript. It's clumsy, the characters are cliched, the women are all beautiful and interchangeable, the plot takes forever to take shape, the hero is competent at first but then suddenly turns stupid, everyone in the book drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks and drinks (I think they all attended the Nick and Nora Charles School for Advanced Alcoholics), every main character is secretly plotting against every other main character and the whole thing is just one great, huge, crashing, epic bore.
To be fair, Crichton was young and just starting out and was still learning the craft of writing. The trouble was, he never got that much better in my opinion. Oh, he was a great story teller, full of terrific high concept ideas that seemed ready made to make the leap from page to screen. Crichton became an enormously popular, successful and wealthy author but dammit, he just never was that good of a writer. He could keep me turning pages, no doubt, but all the time, a voice in my head was constantly reminding me that this stuff isn't very well written.
Which begs the question, does popular, escapist fiction have to be high art and great literature? Of course not and I'm certainly guilty of enjoying other books by other writers who were on a par (or less) with the later works of Michael Crichton. But there are so many guys out there who bring something more to the page other than plot, guys like Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, that make me wish every thriller writer would learn from them.
If you're a die-hard Michael Crichton fan and are determined to read everything he ever wrote, go ahead and give THE VENOM BUSINESS a try. Just be warned, you might not like what you read. Everyone else, cross against the light to avoid this one.