By now, you’ve probably heard the news that Michael Crichton died last week after a protracted struggle with cancer (read his obituary at The Guardian). His death was private and unexpected (he had completed a new novel, scheduled for release next month, now postponed). Most readers have come to associate Crichton with techno-thrillers and scientific mysteries built around the latest “bleeding-edge” technology of the day in which they were written — e.g., the mind/computer connection (The Terminal Man), cloning (Jurassic Park), virtual reality (Disclosure), time travel (Timeline), nanotechnology (Prey), global warming (State of Fear), and so on. Despite an obvious sympathy for technology, Crichton’s novels are usually cautionary tales, warning readers about the dangers as well as (perhaps even more than) the benefits of new technologies.
But though he’s better known for these techno-thrillers, they aren’t the only kinds of books he wrote. He wrote a good deal of nonfiction, for example, including books on the medical industry, the artist Jasper Johns, and an excellent memoir, Travels. If you like exotic and adventure travel, give this book a try. He also wrote a couple of terrific historical novels. (And I’m not thinking of Timeline, which is half-historical, half-techno-thriller.)
From The Guardian obit:
He returned to books with two historical novels, The Great Train Robbery (1975), based on the 1855 theft of gold from a London to Folkestone train, and, the following year, Eaters of the Dead, one of his best and most overlooked books. Presented as a lost manuscript written by an Islamic envoy kidnapped by Vikings in 932 [sic *], it was a retelling of the Beowulf story, which he originally wrote on a bet that he could make that myth relevant to a modern audience.
Now I’ve read almost everything Crichton wrote, but when it came to picking a book to read in memoriam, I chose Eaters of the Dead, which I hadn’t read since some time in college. (You may know it as The 13th Warrior; the novel was reissued with that name, regrettably, after a rather poor film adaptation about ten years ago). Like most of Crichton’s other early novels (e.g., The Terminal Man, The Andromeda Strain, and The Great Train Robbery), it’s quite good — better than you might guess if you’ve only ever read the most recent Crichton. Tight, well-written, and engrossing. But Eaters of the Dead is perhaps the “Crichton novel” least like any of the others. As The Guardian pointed out, it’s a kind of retelling of Beowulf, but much more as well.
The novel is presented as a lost manuscript, a meta-narrative frame many writers before and after have used, including Tolkien . The novel, then, is held out to be a part of the historical account made by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a genuine historical figure who visited the Rus (Vikings in the region of the Volga, in modern-day Russia, whence the name). Ibn Fadlan is a primary source of our knowledge of several Viking social practices, including the famous cremation by funereal pyre . But Crichton, very cleverly, incorporates a retelling of the Beowulf legend as part of this manuscript, planting, as it were, the “historical” seed for the genuine Beowulf poem. This, of course, is bound to appeal to fans of mythology — and of Tolkien, who wrote from a similar angle (and who likewise admired Beowulf).
As Ruth Johnston Staver explains in A Companion to Beowulf
Eaters of the Dead [...] attempts to retell Beowulf’s story through the foreign voice of the Arab Ibn Fadlan. The new story, while recognizable, is changed to a point of confusion, at least for unwary readers. The confusion begins with the novel’s format. It is apparently a manuscript translated from the Arabic and Latin and written around AD 922 by an Arab emissary from Baghdad, who was sent to meet with the King of the Bulgars and was caught up on a side adventure. The novel opens with an introduction that appears to be a scholarly history of the manuscript, and it sounds like real histories of manuscript fragments. There are places, names, and dates, but they are all fictional. All through the novel this pretense is maintained, with fictional scholarly footnotes on the translation and a fictional appendix. 
The names are similar, yet not the same. Why? Crichton probably means to reflect the vagaries of history. His names are different enough to suggest that either his Ibn Fadlan or the genuine Beowulf poet has gotten them wrong, or at least, not quite right. Instead of Beowulf, we have Buliwyf; for Grendel, wendol; for Hrunting, Runding; for Heorot, Hurot; for Hroðgar, Rothgar; and so on. The pairs of names feel like they could easily be authentic erosions, one from the other. Likewise, the story is similar, and yet not the same. Instead of one Grendel as in the poem, the novel gives us an entire tribe of creatures, the wendol, whom Crichton implies in the faux-pendix, may be an isolated group of Neanderthals who survived into the historical period. There are conflicts between wendol (Grendel), their mother, and a dragon, but they occur in a different order in the novel. One of Crichton’s most inventive manipulations relates to the dragon. In the novel, the glowworm dragon of Korgon, it turns out, isn’t quite what it appears:
Here is what I saw: high in the air, a glowing fiery point of light, like a blazing star [...]. Soon appeared a second point of light, and yet another, and then another. I counted past a dozen and then ceased to count further. These glowing fire-points appeared in a line, which undulated like a snake, or verily like the undulating body of a dragon.
[...] the glowworm dragon of Korgon bore down upon us in thunder and flame. Each blazing point grew larger, and baleful red, flickering and licking; the body of the dragon was long and shimmering, a vision most fierce of aspect, and yet I was not afraid, for I determined now that these were horsemen with torches, and this proved true. 
So, what appeared to be a dragon, and was “recorded” in the poem, Beowulf, as the genuine saurian article, is here in Ibn Fadlan’s manuscript account revealed to have been nothing more than a clever, and doubtlessly effective, military stratagem. This has the feeling of genuine historicity, don’t you think? How else to explain a dragon? Unless, of course, they really existed. (Did they? :)
It all boils down to a gripping medieval tale in its own right, presented through a frame of feigned historical authenticity, with many points of contact (but not total congruency) with Beowulf. It’s not your run of the mill Michael Crichton, certainly, but every bit as good as his best techno-thrillers, and perhaps deeper and better written than most of them.  If you’re looking for a way to remember Crichton, and especially if you haven’t read Eaters of the Dead, why not give it a try? I daresay even Tolkien would have thought it a cracking good tale.
* Kidnapped is overstating it a bit; compelled would be more accurate. And the action takes place in AD 922, not 932. Tsk, tsk, tsk, basic fact-checking. ;)
 For more on Tolkien’s use, as well as discussion of the tradition, see Mark Hooker’s essay, “The Feigned-Manuscript Topos,” in A Tolkienian Mathomium. Llyfrawr, 2006, pp. 153-177.
 See further, Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad. Ibn Fadlan’s Journey To Russia. Ed. Richard N. Frye. Princeton (NJ): Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005. This is the first complete English translation of Ibn Fadlan’s writings.
 Staver, Ruth Johnston. A Companion to Beowulf. Westport (CT): Greenwood Press, 2005, p. 189. See the entire discussion of the novel on pp. 189–91.
 Crichton, Michael. Eaters of the Dead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976, p. 126.
 For a more developed critical comparison, read Hugh Magennis’s essay, “Michael Crichton, Ibn Fadlan, Fantasy Cinema: Beowulf at the Movies,” in Old English Newsletter 35.1 (Fall 2001), in HTML or PDF format.