The Great Train Robbery (novel)

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The Great Train Robbery
First edition cover
Author Michael Crichton
Country United States
Language English
Genre Historical novel,
Crime novel
Publisher Knopf
Publication date
May 1975
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 266
ISBN 0-394-49401-6
OCLC 1175916
LC Class PZ4.C9178 Gr PS3553.R48
Preceded by The Terminal Man
Followed by Eaters of the Dead

The Great Train Robbery is a bestselling 1975 historical novel written by Michael Crichton. Originally published in the USA by Alfred A. Knopf (then, a division of Random House), it is currently published by Avon, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It is the story of the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, a massive gold heist, which takes place on a train travelling through Victorian-era England on 22 May 1855. Most of the book takes place in London.


To ensure the success of his bold plan, Pierce spends more than a year in preparation. His first steps are fairly easy as he uses his wealth and social contacts to procure information on the security measures and locations of the keys. The bank's president, Edgar Trent, and its general manager, Henry Fowler, each possess a key. The other two are locked in a cabinet at the offices of the South Eastern Railway at the London Bridge railroad terminus.

Henry Fowler contracts syphilis and, being unwilling to seek medical attention out of embarrassment, asks his friend Pierce, as a bachelor and a sporting gentleman, to aid him in seeking a remedy: sleeping with a virgin. After making the necessary arrangements through a madam (and charging Fowler the exorbitant price of one hundred fifty guineas) for a night of pleasure with a twelve-year-old "fresh," (twelve being the legal age of consent), Pierce and Agar take advantage of the opportunity to make a copy of Fowler's key, which he always carries with him around his neck but takes off and leaves with his clothes during the assignation at the request of his virgin.

The most difficult keys to copy are the two keys at the train station, which Pierce plans to procure and copy by night. The presence of "crushers" (policemen) and "jacks" (security guards) forces him to recruit a "snakesman" (a burglar able to slip inside buildings through small and cramped spaces) nicknamed "Clean Willy", who is currently incarcerated in the high-security Newgate Prison. He sends a message through Willy's former mistress and assists him in escaping from the supposedly escape-proof Newgate while the public is distracted by a public execution outside the prison. After nursing Willy back to health from injuries received during the escape, the criminals succeed in making wax copies of the two keys at the railway station, completing the task with only seconds to spare before detection.

Now possessed of all four copies of the necessary keys, Pierce loses no time in bribing Burgess, the poorly paid guard on the train who rides in the baggage van containing the safes. Agar is then able to perform a dry run of the theft on 17 February 1855, making sure that the copied keys work perfectly.

Everything appears to be moving along smoothly; the actual theft is planned for May 22 when the would-be thieves find themselves seriously compromised: Clean Willy turns nose (informs to the police), disrupting Pierce's lay. Pierce's cabby Barlow murders Willy before he can reveal the most crucial information, although their plans are now in danger of discovery by Scotland Yard. Harranby, a very senior detective, correctly fears that a major robbery is at hand. Through careful manipulation of a "blower" (informant), the criminals manage to divert the police's attention to an alleged robbery of the transatlantic cable company's payroll in Greenwich, leaving them free and clear to finally strike.

On the eve of the Great Train Robbery, another unexpected development occurs. A new railway policy requires the train doors to be locked from the outside and prohibits anyone except the guard from riding in the goods van. Unwilling to further delay their plans, Pierce smuggles Agar into the baggage van inside a coffin and then risks his life by climbing across the roof of the train during the journey. He unlocks the door from outside, thus allowing them to drop off the gold at a pre-arranged point. By the next day, much of England is in an uproar upon the discovery of the robbery, with every organisation involved in the gold shipment blaming each other, few leads as to the true culprits and no idea how it was done. The members of the gang drop out of sight.

Although their daring plan appears to have succeeded, Pierce, Agar and Burgess are ultimately arrested after Agar's mistress, who has been caught in the act of robbing a drunk, becomes a police informant to escape imprisonment. Agar confesses after being threatened by the police with transportation to Australia. Pierce and Burgess are arrested at a prize-fighting event in Manchester, and all three are convicted. Pierce is sentenced to a long prison term, but escapes while being transported from court and disappears (it is presumed that Barlow and Miss Miriam arranged it).

After Pierce's escape, conflicting reports indicate he, Miriam and Barlow spend the rest of their lives living in luxury, reportedly in various foreign cities. The train guard Burgess dies of cholera during his short prison term; Agar is indeed transported to Australia, but on completion of his sentence prospers and passes away a wealthy man in 1902. Edgar Trent dies from a chest ailment in 1857, while Henry Fowler dies from "unknown causes" in 1858. The arresting officer Harranby dies in 1879 after being kicked in the head by a horse he had been flogging.

The final line of the novel reads, "The money from the Great Train Robbery was never recovered."


  • Edward Pierce - professional burglar who poses as a gentleman amongst his upper-class acquaintances in Victorian England. Pierce is arguably one of the most mysterious characters found in Crichton's works as almost nothing is known about his background; indeed even his name is likely false as others also refer to him as "John Simms" along with other titles. Nonetheless, his actions and thoughts in the book consistently demonstrate a sharp intelligence and broad knowledge which far outstrips that of his fellow criminals; perhaps his greatest asset is an ability to easily navigate through both the British underworld and the aristocracy. Throughout the planning and the execution of the Great Train Robbery, Pierce is always cautious, never truly trusting anyone—this caution is eventually justified as it is Agar, his closest accomplice, who finally sells him out.
  • Robert Agar - A twenty-six-year-old screwsman (criminal who is skilled with copying keys and picking locks) at the beginning of the novel, Agar is pivotal to the eventual success of the Great Train Robbery, though he is also largely responsible for the culprits' eventual capture. He is apparently very well-acquainted with many criminals and helps Pierce identify many persons of interest including the informant Chokee Bill as well as the snakesman Clean Willy. Though he becomes a police informant at the end of the book in hopes of avoiding transportation to Australia, the judge sends him there anyway and he dies a wealthy man. Michael Crichton depicts Robert Agar as Pierce's lackey with limited intelligence, though his real life counterpart actually masterminded much of the robbery and got away with minor punishment.
  • Clean Willy - generally acknowledged to be the best snakesman available in London although his skills were apparently inadequate to prevent arrest and incarceration (which occurred at least twice before and during the story). Edward Pierce goes to great expense to help Willy escape from a high-security prison for the sole purpose of enlisting the snakesman's aid in the train robbery. After successfully completing his tasks, Willy is paid off by Pierce and disappears for some time from the narrative before resurfacing as a police informant, almost jeopardizing the entire scheme. Ultimately he is garroted by Barlow in a boardinghouse.
  • Barlow - a violent thug and murderer who serves Edward Pierce loyally as a cabby, although his services are also employed for other purposes, such as the murder of Clean Willy. He and Miss Miriam manage to elude capture by the authorities, eventually rescuing Pierce from the authorities before the trio completely disappears.
  • Miss Miriam - Edward Pierce's mistress who is generally regarded as highly attractive by other characters in the book. She is also a talented actress and plays rather brief though important roles in the execution of the train robbery (such as pretending Agar is her dead brother and distracting Mr. Fowler while Pierce unlocks the cargo train). In many ways, she and Pierce are very similar and well suited for each other: both are resourceful and possess the ability to mix with men and women of all classes.


Crichton became aware of the story when lecturing at Cambridge University. He later read the transcripts of the court trial and started researching the historical period.[1]

Historical deviations[edit]

The story is a fictionalised representation of the historical events that happened, although the setting can be considered quite accurate. The character names are mixed up in the novel. For example, the main protagonist William Pierce is changed to Edward Pierce, and Edward Agar to Robert Agar. Crichton admitted he did not want to be constrained by what actually happened.[1] The true story of the robbery can be found in the book by David C. Hanrahan: The First Great Train Robbery.[2]


The New York Times called it "Mr Crichton's best thriller to date".[3] The Los Angeles Times described it as "marvellous fun".[4]

The book was one of the biggest best selling novels in the US in 1975.[5]

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was later made into a 1979 film entitled The First Great Train Robbery directed by Crichton starring Sean Connery as Pierce, Donald Sutherland as Agar and Lesley-Anne Down as Miriam. Unlike the real incident, the protagonists are seen to escape to freedom after the trial. The film was nominated for Best Cinematography Award for the British Society of Cinematographers, and the film was also nominated for Best Motion Picture by the Edgar Allan Poe award by the Mystery Writers Association of America. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith was short, but a favourite in the composer's repertoire and an extended version of the music was released in 2004.


  1. ^ a b Owen, Michael (January 28, 1979). "Director Michael Crichton Films a Favorite Novelist". New York Times. p. D17. 
  2. ^ Hanrahan, David C. (2011). The First Great Train Robbery. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 9780709090403. 
  3. ^ Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher (June 10, 1975). "Books of The Times: A Flash Pull for a Fat Pogue". New York Times. p. 36. 
  4. ^ Yardley, Jonathan (June 15, 1975). "Crighton Arrives on 'Great Train Robbery'". Los Angeles Times. 
  5. ^ "The Best Sellers of 1975". New York Times. December 7, 1975.