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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Easy Go by Michael Crichton (John Lange)

March 1, 2015

Titan Publishing Group:  London
2013 (pb)
Originally published in 1968

Before Michael Crichton found fame and fortune writing Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and Sphere, among others (and the movie adaptations) and created the long-run television hit, “E.R.,” he wrote a series of potboiler novels under the nom de plume John Lange.

Among these was the 1968 title Easy Go, a light-hearted heist novel, that followed the adventures of Harold Barnaby, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago, whose expertise in translating Egyptian hieroglyphics has led him to Cairo and the re-translating of ancient scripts whose initial translations he found wanting.  But at the same time he finds himself facing an existential crisis:  his youth is in the rear-view mirror, Egyptology is of waning interest—especially in America, and the best he can hope for is a breakthrough re-translation of a significant ancient text that will garner him a full professorship—and a $16,000 salary (this is 1968, after all!)

But then, out of the blue—or the dusty cubicles of the Cairo Museum—he discovers a text written by the vizier of an un-named 19th Dynasty pharaoh—devilishly encoded—that gives the specific location of the tomb of the king.  And for the first time in his life, Harold Barnaby contemplates “dishonesty on a grand scale.”

Quite by accident he comes upon an old Korean War acquaintance, Robert Pierce, in the Semiramis Hotel bar.  Pierce, a footloose freelance journalist, is suffering from a similar existential angst as Barnaby, and after a bit of cat-and-mouse conversation, the two agree to concoct a scheme to loot the hopefully previously un-looted tomb.  The itinerant journalist is obviously the more worldly of the two conspirators and he proposes an audacious plan:  they must undertake a legitimate archaeological dig, with the approval of the Cairo Museum, the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, and perhaps even UNESCO; it will be a “party” excavation, staffed by colorful and ostensibly wealthy, eccentrics; and they will be headquartered in the open, in Luxor.  This project, carried out in the Valley of the Kings, and based upon Barnaby’s expertise in hieroglyphics translations, will take place during the day, while the clandestine search for the hidden tomb, will take place under cover of night.  Pierce will direct the operation and he immediately sets out to recruit his “team,” based on the contacts he has made in the slightly shady underbelly of Europe’s netherworld.  Their first need is funding, and that is provided in the person of the extremely wealthy and eccentric sybaritic Lord Grover, Fifth Earl of Wheatson, who accepts the invitation to larceny provided he can continue his highly publicized life of debauchery while on the dig.  In Paris he recruits Alan Conway, archaeologist and diamond smuggler; then on to Istanbul to enlist Nikos Karagannas, thief par excellance.  Added to the team, at Lord Grover’s insistence, is his beautiful and enigmatically chaste “niece,” Lisa Barrett.

Getting the hoped-for treasure, and fencing it, seems to be a perplexing problem until the larcenous Pierce comes up with an incredibly audacious scheme:  They will excavate some of the loot (still highly problematic at this point) and sell it back to Egypt for $50 million.  Should the government of Egypt refuse to pay the “ransom,” they will threaten to melt the treasure down and sell it, or more drastically, sell it to an Israeli museum!  But in reality, the treasure will never leave Egypt.  It is all one gigantic scam!

What follows is a delightfully clever romp as the intrepid miscreants hunt for the “last tomb,” as they call it—and then actually find it!  But there are pitfalls—both literal and figurative—and an ending that throws a number of curves at the reader before the Egyptian dust settles.  The story is great good fun, the characters well-conceived and sympathetic, and there is more cigarette smoking, including in the last tomb than you would find in the average Humphrey Bogart movie!

If I had read this little gem back in 1968, I would like to think I would have said to myself, “Hmmm, this writer might have a real future!”  Three trowels for the Crichton/Lange epic Easy Go.