ROBERT CRICHTON was a large and cheerful man who wrote several long and best-selling stories. Like many American writers, he was convivial, politically active, hard-working, and drank a lot. His last 10 years were beset by ill-health and he was in that period almost permanently institutionalised. Yet his stories, most famously The Secret of Santa Vittoria, endure, and his memorial service at the Harvard Club in New York, held years after many friends had seen him last, was crowded.
Born the son of a Hollywood film writer who was blacklisted by McCarthy, Crichton none the less held the credentials of any classic American writer. He had what only the English could call a 'good' war (which of course means a scarring series of combat experiences), attended Harvard and made his way into literature by writing everything from non-fiction for the dubious Argosy magazine to debt-collection letters for an agency.
His first book, The Great Impostor (1954), was non-fiction, recounting the story of a man who posed variously as a priest, a prison warder, and a navy surgeon. It survives chiefly as a 1960 black-and-white movie starring Tony Curtis. It was Crichton's debut as a novelist with The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1966) that established his fabulist credentials, for it sold over 100,000 copies in the first month of publication in 1966. Made in 1969 into a highly successful film directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Anthony Quinn, the novel found its strengths obscured by its quite spectacular commercial success, and serious critics were reluctant to take Crichton as seriously as he deserved.
They thus missed the book's remarkable strengths: its versatile depiction of characters, its unpretentious but subtle prose. Based on the true story of an Italian village that hid its wine from occupying German forces, and probably derived from Crichton's own experiences as an American infantryman fighting his way up Italy, The Secret of Santa Vittoria painted a rich tableau of foreign life for notoriously parochial American readers. Comic, occasionally mawkish, the novel can still veer sharply away from excessive sentimentality. Having bamboozled the dozy occupying Germans, for example, the village's inhabitants find a different treatment in store when a crack Wehrmacht unit retreats through their town:
They never looked at us. They moved through us with the assurance of men who know that if so much as one shot was fired at them by some Renaissance fighter, they would burn the town to the ground.
Crichton's next, indeed only other, novel was The Camerons (1972), a historical saga of a mining family in Scotland, whence came Crichton's own forebears. A great pot-boiler, the book sold extremely well in both the US and Europe, and managed to range over decades and a large cast of characters without impeding a compelling narrative.
It prefigured in many respects the trashier kinds of rags-to-riches saga now so popular with both British and American readers (and television viewers) but was an infinitely superior sort of book. Sadly, Crichton's health deteriorated after its success, and he proved unable to exploit his proven talent for large-scale popular narrative.
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