Picture, if you will: a dashing rogue with a British accent sets up a year-long plan to steal money from a corrupted government. Everything seems covered, the plans are laid, and the heist goes off with only minor inconveniences. The rogue flees the government and is never captured. The money, taken from a government train, is never recovered. The rogue, his lover, and his best friend live their lives on the lam in luxury. The snatch is lauded as one of, if not the greatest robbery in history.
Surprise, it isn’t Robin Hood. The main character of the story is a through-and-through villain.
By all accounts, he should be vilified, condemned, and even hated. Yet this man, Edward Pierce, is the person who receives cheer and commendation from the audience. Not only is he played by Sean Connery in the 1978 film, but Michael Crichton’s novel idolizes him. The reader wants him to succeed in his plot, cheers for him and wills him towards his end goal. His planning and execution are thorough, his methods are effective, and his dark humor is surprisingly effective. But Pierce is objectively a villain. Why are we so drawn to him and his cohorts? Why do we want his plan to succeed?
I welcome you to Crustacean Corner, where today we’re discussing the ideas of the sinful protagonist and dark humor in Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery. Spoilers ahead for the book, if you wish to read it beforehand.
The Protagonist and the Proper
It isn’t often that a reader starts a new book in the shoes of a genuine villain. Crichton’s book, a historical account of the actual Great Gold Robbery of 1855, throws a spanner in the face of convention. We’re conditioned to see the world through the eyes of a hero, or at the least, a well-intentioned nobody thrust into unusual situations. Instead, the reader meets Edward Pierce, an enigmatic gentleman with his sights set on a shipment of government gold. They follow along as Pierce slowly gathers information, a crew, and connections. The better part of a year is spent following Pierce and his cohorts mapping out each centimeter of their plan. Everything from acquiring safe keys to the possibility of being double-crossed is covered. Then comes the day of the heist and, with only a few hitches, the gold is stolen. Again, this is an actual event, one of the greatest train robberies in British History.
And yet the reader is rooting for the conspirators. Why are the villains the protagonists?
To clarify, a protagonist isn’t always a lawful, good person. They are the focal point, a reference through which the reader sees the world. And this viewpoint given is that of a cunning criminal attempting to do the impossible. We cheer for Pierce not because he is a good person, in fact, he is extremely manipulative and uncaring, but because he is brilliant. The reader feels his tension when stealing safe keys from an office, his confidence during a jailbreak. We want to see him overcome impossibility, as a typical hero, but for selfish means. He is Moriarty with a striking red beard, a grand architect. And when the end comes, even the public lauds him for his daring plot, ignorant of what it’s taken to get there.
Dark Shades during Comedy Night
Another prominent feature of Crichton’s account of the robbery is the dark, dry humor sprinkled into it. Be it an aristocratic banker making barking noises at a fighting dog or Pierce having to wear a dead man’s clothes, moments of “wait, what the…” break up the masterminding and plotting. One moment in particular, with Pierce retelling his story in court, has the reader scratching their head with a wry smile. As he describes climbing overtop a moving train, Pierce tells the court of a physics principle that he knew would keep him safe from death. In reality, the entire attempt succeeded through blind luck and a confidence in his erroneous understanding of physics.
It’s actually much funnier when you read it, I promise.
The dry humor is another sticking point for the villain, Pierce. Through him, Crichton delves into the culture of 19th-century England for education as well as humor. Be it through the ludicrous psychological profiling of class behavior or outdated medical treatments, the reader gets a glimpse into that period of time. It isn’t rip-roaring humor, but there are moments of shaking your head in exasperation at the ridiculousness of people.
I recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical drama, in particular, British drama. Be aware that there are certain mature topics and themes raised, so exercise some caution.
Think this might strike your interest? Do you enjoy historical fiction or reimaginings of the past? Do you have any books you would like to recommend? Please feel free to share in the comments!
As always, this has been Crab, and keep on chugging.