The Great Train Robbery (novel)

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The Great Train Robbery
First edition cover
AuthorMichael Crichton
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical novel,
Crime novel
Publication date
May 1975
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
LC ClassPZ4.C9178 Gr PS3553.R48
Preceded byThe Terminal Man 
Followed byEaters of the Dead 

The Great Train Robbery is a bestselling 1975 historical novel written by Michael Crichton, his third novel under his own name and his thirteenth novel overall. 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. A 1978 film adaptation was written for the screen and directed by Michael Crichton.


In 1854, Edward Pierce, a charismatic and affluent "cracksman" or master thief, makes plans to steal a shipment of gold worth more than twelve thousand pounds being transported monthly from London to the Crimean War front. He faces enormous obstacles as the bank has taken strict precautions, including locking the gold in two custom-built safes, each with two locks, thus requiring a total of four keys to open. He recruits Robert Agar, a "screwsman" or specialist in copying keys, as an accomplice.

To ensure his plan's success, 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 terminus.

Pierce's first target is Edgar Trent's key, but he has no clues or prior information on Trent's habits. Through painstaking surveillance, conversations with bank employees and a deliberately bungled pickpocketing attempt, Pierce deduces that Trent's key is kept at his mansion, but is still unable to learn the exact location. After learning that Trent is keen on ratting (a blood sport involving the betting on dogs killing rats,) Pierce succeeds in becoming acquainted with Trent and while visiting the Trent mansion feigns a romantic interest in Elizabeth Trent, Trent's plain twenty-nine-year-old daughter, who has had few suitors. While pretending to court Elizabeth, Pierce learns that the key is most likely located in the basement wine cellar. With the assistance of his longtime mistress, known only as "Miss Miriam" (who is also an actress,) and his loyal associate, a buck cabby named Barlow, Pierce and Agar successfully break into Trent's home and wine cellar by night and make a wax impression of the key.

Henry Fowler contracts syphilis and, too embarrassed to seek medical attention, asks his friend Pierce, as a bachelor and sporting gentleman, to aid him in seeking a remedy: sleeping with a virgin. After supposedly making the necessary arrangements through a madam (actually "Miss Miriam") and charging Fowler the exorbitant price of one hundred fifty guineas for a night-time assignation with a twelve-year-old (the legal age of consent) "fresh," Pierce and Agar are able to make an impression of Fowler's key, which he always carries with him around his neck but takes off and leaves with his clothes (at the request of his virgin) during the assignation.

The most difficult keys to "wax" are the two keys at the train station. Pierce plans to copy them at night, but the presence of "crushers" (policemen) and "jacks" (security guards) forces him to recruit "Clean Willy" Williams, a "snakesman" or burglar able to slip inside buildings through small and cramped openings, who is currently incarcerated in the high-security and supposedly escape-proof Newgate Prison. Pierce sends a message through Willy's former mistress and assists Willy in escaping from 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 job with only seconds to spare before detection.

Now possessing copies of all four keys, Pierce bribes Burgess, the poorly paid train guard 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.

Certain unexpected events over the next few months cause delays. Finally the actual robbery is scheduled for May 22nd, but Pierce's plans are again disrupted when "Clean Willy" suddenly turns "nose" (police informer). Pierce's cabby Barlow murders Willy before he can reveal the most crucial information, although Willy has told enough to cause Edward Harranby, a very senior Scotland Yard detective, to deduce that a major robbery is planned. Through careful manipulation of a "blower" (informant) Pierce diverts the police's attention to an alleged robbery of the transatlantic cable company's payroll in Greenwich, leaving the thieves free and clear to finally strike.

On the eve of the Great Train Robbery, another unexpected development occurs: a new railway policy requires the baggage van doors to be locked from the outside and prohibits anyone except the guard from riding in the baggage van. Determined not to further delay the theft, Pierce smuggles Agar into the baggage van inside a coffin, 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.

Eighteen months later, Agar's mistress, who has been caught in the act of robbing a drunk, informs on Agar to escape imprisonment. Agar, who has been arrested on an unrelated charge, turns "nose" after being threatened by Harranby with transportation to Australia. Pierce and Burgess are arrested at a prize-fighting event in Manchester, and all three are ultimately convicted. Pierce is sentenced to a long prison term, but escapes while being transported from court (presumably arranged by Miss Miriam and Barlow) and disappears.

After Pierce's escape, conflicting reports indicate him, Miriam and Barlow spending the rest of their lives living in luxury, reportedly in various foreign cities. Burgess dies of cholera during his short prison term; Agar is transported to Australia, but 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. Edward 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 former mugger 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 baggage car). 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 characters' names are changed in the novel; for example, the main protagonist William Pierce is changed to Edward Pierce and Edward Agar to Robert Agar. Crichton stated that he did not want to be constrained by what actually happened.[1] The true story of the robbery can be found in David C. Hanrahan's book 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]

Three audiobook versions have been released:

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, only Pierce is captured and tried and all of 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.