Victorian “gentleman” Edward Pierce is a sharp dresser, a ladies’ favorite and a criminal mastermind in Michael Crichton’s 1975 best-seller The Great Train Robbery. He’s a compelling anti-hero who puts together a collection including a screwman (locksmith), a snakesman (burglar), a lady of the night, a bank employee, a train guard and a corpse. Crichton loaded The Great Train Robbery chockfull of Victoriana, from fashion, to prisons, gentlemen’s clubs, politics, and of course, steam locomotives in telling the story of the real 1855 robbery of 200 pounds of gold, on its way to pay the British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War.
The novel is one of process rather than character. In fact, Pierce, if that is his real name, remains mostly a brilliant mystery. He collects the crew, creates the process, conquers all setbacks thrown into his path and ultimately pulls off what was considered the greatest crime of his century. Pierce is a man who easily travels between the highs and the lows of Victorian society, from ratter contests and the tops of steam engines to wooing. “This singular gentleman was Edward Pierce, and for a man destined to become so notorious that Queen Victoria herself expressed a desire to meet him – or, barring that, to attend his hanging – he remain an oddly mysterious figure.” Is it any wonder that Sean Connery was cast to play Pierce in the 1979 movie based on the book?
Michael Crichton’s notes from the film include the following anecdote, which is frankly, just how I always imagined (hoped!) Sean Connery would be:
Finally we are shooting along take where Sean comes running up the length of the train, jumping from car to car. Because we are shooting in all directions, the camera operator and I are hanging out on a side platform, and everyone else is inside the train. I am trying to watch the scene and also to remember to duck down at the right time so the camera lens can swing over my head.
Filming begins. Sean runs up the length of the train. I smell a harsh acrid odor. I feel a sharp pain on top of my scalp. I realize that my hair has been set on fire by the cinders from the locomotive. I am frantically brushing at my hair, trying to put the fire out, because I don’t want smoke coming from my head when the camera swings over me.
While I am doing that, Sean jumps to the nearest car, stumbles and falls. I think, Jeez, Sean, don’t overdo making it look dangerous. He is carrying a bundle of clothes, a story point. He drops the clothes as he falls and I realize Sean would never do that, that he must have really fallen. Meanwhile, I am still trying to put the fire out on my head. Sean scrambles to his feet, retrieves the clothes, and moves on, wincing in genuine pain. I get the cinders out of my head as the camera swings over. We make the shot.
Afterward we stop the train; everybody gets off. He has a bad cut on his shin that is being attended to.
“Are you all right, Sean?”
He looks at me. “Did you know,” he says, “that your hair was on fire? You ought to be more careful up there.”
And he laughs.
I really enjoyed the book. Pierce was a genius, and much like many of my own criminal clients, probably had the ability to earn a fortune in a legitimate way but chose to work outside the lines because he found it more fun, or challenging. Some things never change.
There wasn’t a whole lot of good food in the book, so I think my book club menu would include:
Steamers (soft shell clams): Recipe from Epicurious.com
Steamed Sugar Snap Peas
Yellow Cake with buttercream icing — to represent the gold
Blues in the Night, Ella Fitzgerald
Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash
John Henry, Hugh Laurie’s version (because he’s British)
Chattanooga Choo Choo, Harry Connick, Jr.
Hobo Blues, John Lee Hooker
I can’t do any better than Sean Connery. Unless it’s Benedict Cumberbatch. And actually, I think a remake of this would be excellent. Very exciting.