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John Michael Crichton (KRI-tuhn), son of Zula (Miller) Crichton and John Henderson, onetime president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, grew up in Roslyn, Long Island. He was the oldest of four children, including two sisters and a brother, Douglas, with whom he collaborated under the joint pseudonym Michael Douglas. Frequently described as an overachiever, Crichton sold his first writing at age fourteen. He intended to major in writing in college, but instead he studied anthropology at Harvard University, from which he graduated summa cum laude with an A.B. in 1964, adding the M.D. degree in 1969. By the time that he had completed medical school at age twenty-six, Crichton had written six mystery novels, five potboilers, and a more promising work entitled A Case of Need, which earned for him the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America. The novel features a doctor who performs abortions; he is arrested for the murder of a teenager who dies as the result of an operation that he did not perform.

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Because Crichton no longer intended to practice medicine after graduation and because his dean was aware of his growing fame as a writer (The Andromeda Strain had been accepted for publication), he was allowed to alter his last year of studies at Massachusetts General Hospital and research the book Five Patients: The Hospital Explained. In Five Patients, Crichton not only documents cases but also offers a convincing analysis of both the training of physicians and the quality of health care available in the United States.

Meanwhile, The Andromeda Strain launched his career as a best-selling novelist. Capitalizing on peak interest in high technology and the space race, the plot tells of four scientists in a Nevada desert laboratory located underground; they have five days to save the world from an alien bacterial strain brought to Earth when an unmanned U.S. research satellite unexpectedly returns. A formula effort written in the style of Crichton’s hero, Alfred Hitchcock, The Andromeda Strain was condemned by critics because of its forgettable characters and lack of passion but was well received by the general public because of its swift plot and facile writing.

The Terminal Man utilized up-to-date medical knowledge about stereotaxic procedures and brought Crichton further popular attention. Thirty-four-year-old Harold Benson suffers from psychomotor epilepsy and consequently becomes the first human being to have a computer implanted in his brain. Again, Crichton uses a time-lapse crisis to build the climax. Like The Andromeda Strain, this book quickly received a film offer, inevitably inviting comparison to the James Bond novels. Crichton received both praise for its verisimilitude and scorn for what some critics dismissed as cheap entertainment.

Now Crichton was in limbo: “I had graduated from Harvard, taught at Cambridge, climbed the Great Pyramid, earned a medical degree, married and divorced, . . . published two best-selling novels, and . . . made a movie.” The Great Train Robbery, set in London in 1855, was his next effort. Based on the heist of valuable gold bullion worth twelve thousand pounds and intended for British troops in the Crimea, this popular entertainment was made into a film in 1979, with the author serving as director. One critic complained of the novel’s “little essays and digressions.” Another called it a ballet mecanique. Still, Crichton succeeded as a popular storyteller.

He continued with the device of using purported historical evidence, like William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, and others before him, in Eaters of the Dead , his tribute to Beowulf and King Rothgar’s Meade Hall. The plot centers on a document attributed to Ibn Fadlan, a tenth century Turkish emissary to Russia who chronicled his abduction by Norsemen and his subsequent aid in their defeat of cannibals who ate the fallen...

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