Three things in life you can’t do: hurry love, touch this, and go home. For all the nostalgia the third provokes, it’s never the same; and yet of late I’ve found myself pondering the fact that my journey to 1930s detective fiction must’ve started somewhere. And so, for my Tuesday posts this month, I am going to attempt to go home.
It works like this: I have thought back over the reams and reams of books I read before the classic detection bug bit me, and identified four which I feel might have in them the teeth-marks of such a bite. Some feature detectives, all have a mystery at their core, and I believe the precepts of clewing are evident somewhere in them. I’m going to reread each of them in the order I believe I first encountered them, and try to determine how much a) they pushed me onto a more detection-based carousel, and b) how much I’d enjoy them if reading them for the first time now.
First up, to the surprise of no-one…
Airframe (1996) by Michael Crichton
How I encountered this book
It’s hard to believe now, because the brand has been so diluted by inferior movies, themselves lost amidst summers of ever-more-hyped brands, but Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) was, without fear of exaggeration, the biggest thing to happen to cinema for years. And, hell, I loved that movie so much, I was still getting Jurassic Park-themed stuff for my birthday in 1994, and had already read the book at least twice before its sequel The Lost World (1995) was published. I’d cleaned up most of Crichton’s back catalogue, too, and TLW marked the point where I started getting him in hardcover…which continued even as his career declined with the likes of Timeline (1999), Prey (2002), and State of Fear (2004) — I bailed out before his final completed novel, Next (2006). Airfame (1996) has always remained for me a bright point in the decline, and I received the hardcover edition above for Christmas in 1996 and had read it before New Year 1997. Ho-ly crap, I just realised that this means I first read this book over 22 years ago. Man, I feel old.
What’s it about?
As a routine commercial flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles approaches LAX airport, the tower is contacted by the captain who tells them “We have a passenger emergency … We need ambulances on the ground. I would say thirty or forty ambulances”. The plane lands, with three dead and 56 injured passengers, and the interior cabin destroyed as if having gone through unimaginably severe turbulence. But no turbulence was reported by any nearby planes, the pilot is “one of the five or six best captains ever trained on this aircraft”, the autopilot was not a fault…so there appears to be no explanation for the carnage that occurred.
Enter Casey Singleton, Vice-President of the company who made the plane and on the Incident Review Team responsible for finding the cause of any difficulties their planes encounter. Ordinarily given several months to resolve even the simplest of cases, an imminent deal with a foreign power ratchets up the magnitude of this issue, and Casey and her team of rag-tag experts have just one week to find the root of this tragedy. If the plane is considered unsafe, it means the collapse of this business deal, which in the economically straitened times the novel depicts would result in the loss of a huge number of jobs. And so she must solve the mystery of the ‘porpoising’ plane under the threat of industrial action from workers who see their jobs being at risk, while also encumbered with a new assistant whose motives she cannot entirely trust.
Any seeds of detection?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, yes. The investigation must resolve the issue of whatever caused the plane to behave in the way it did, and a lot of common sense reasoning goes into the matter of collecting evidence in such a way that the root cause may still be determined. For example, when paramedics need to remove a dead body that has ended up wedged in the overhead lockers, Singleton — given a sort of roving Amateur Detective status, with freedom to go anywhere, talk to anyone, examine everything with impunity — is called in to okay the removal since there’s a chance that cutting into that section of the plane might damage flight-critical cabling and so remove the potential of determining whether the issue sprang from whatever electronics or systems are found there.
The various elements of the plane and its workings must be examined in the way a murder or a theft draws in all considerations involved: the electronics, the various systems, the weather, the parts that have been replaced by possibly low-quality alternatives…all of it must be examined, and the results of what is discovered must be weighed against the behaviour of the plane and a decision made on the likelihood of that being the answer. If you want to really push it — and I don’t — there’s an argument that this is a nascent impossible crime: no cause is apparent for the destruction they encounter, yet it clearly happened.
Primarily, however, it is a thriller, and as such plays far more into those staples than the trappings of a rigorous exercise in cause and effect. There are several key scenes in which Singleton is Visibly Menaced, and come the end you find out who was doing this and what their Big Scheme is…but, of anything, that Menacing was likely to achieve the opposite of what they wanted, and seems to’ve been done only so that audiences shifting in their seats after much discussion of counterfeit aeroplane parts and the examination of tables of electrical read-outs might finally be given a bit of Excitement with which to engage.
However, knowing the solution to the mystery this time around, it’s interesting how many little seeds are sown early on. Crichton was always more of a thriller writer than a detectionist, and fails to really exploit these in the way someone of a more refined focus might, but the behaviour of the crew, the conflicting information received in the early stages of the investigation, and some observations dropped in at strategic points throughout the book do eventually weave together to provide the solution. It’s more intuitive than it is deductive, and the key piece of evidence is not something you, the reader, have a chance to witness, but the rigorous, structured exploration of each element of the circumstances — and the red herrings, dead ends, and apparent revelations that turn out to be a fraction as important as they initially appear — definitely have in them the roots of detection.
Can you go home?
I enjoyed this a lot, and second time around had a far better grasp on the story Crichton was telling, but the real shame of it is that the pieces don’t quite join up. Crichton was a big one for corporate malfeasance, and there’s unsurprisingly a wider scheme here wherein Big Business is all capitalist and money-hungry and doesn’t care about the Little Man, and in order for those threads to tie in you need one extra stitch that is missing because either Crichton thinks it is there, or — and this seems more likely to me — he didn’t put in because he didn’t quite have the balls to make that an aspect of his story. Essentially, for the Business is Evil thread to work as suggested here, it would be necessary to know that the plane was going to go through what it does, and that, as it turns out, is impossible to predict. However there is a point here where this could have been resolved, and become a staggeringly brilliant look at the wages of sin and the manipulations of big business — witness his note-perfect castigation of greed as typified through the growth of budget airlines, of which we now have a rapidly-emptying barrel-full — but Crichton seems content for his big, movie-friendly ending and then everyone’s happy and we all move on.
And therefore another difficulty emerges: because he can’t quite bring himself to make that fatal step, there’s no Bad Guy, and so Crichton has to shoehorn in The Media so that he can veer off into jeremiads about their appalling behaviour and lack of fairness in reporting the most eye-catching stories in the most brain-free way.
There was a time when reporters wanted information, their questions directed to an underlying event. They wanted an accurate picture of a situation, and to do that they had to make the effort to see things your way, to understand how you were thinking about it.
But now reporters cam to the story with the lead fixed in their minds; they saw their job as proving what they already knew. They didn’t want information so much as evidence of villainy. … They proceeded from a presumption of universal guilt, in an atmosphere of muted hostility and suspicion. …[T]hey wanted to trip you up, to catch you in a small error, or in a foolish statement — or just a phrase that could be taken out of context and made to look silly or insensitive.
As a result, we get treated to countless examples of how unscrupulous and evil and just plain uncaring everyone involved in the media is — see the reporter Jennifer Malone delighting in video footage sneaked off the aircraft of a man’s neck being broken while he flies through the air on the wildly porpoising plane — and while some points of interest do emerge (there was apparently at one point a “fairness doctrine” which required television new to present and give equal time to all sides of an issue, but that was abandoned at some point under the Reagan administration) and the notion of culpability is addressed fleetingly…
In a nation besieged by rabid layers and a sensational press, the industry saw little advantage to providing an objective, reliable record of what had gone wrong.
…most of what this boils down to is the journalists being opportunistic, dumb, and manipulative and Singleton — never anything less than very intelligent and capable, knowing her job and the industry inside and out — being sideswiped in the manner of the greenest greenhorn who ever greenhorned. And this represents possibly the biggest issue most people will have with this. Apart from the wonderful media coach who has a lone scene with Singleton as feels so fully-rounded that you almost can’t believe Crichton wrote her, the characters get lost in the author’s crusade. He’s far more interested in the narrative sucker-punch of catching these journalists out at their own game than he is in making you believe in the people involved. Sure, there’s an element of prescience in some of his declarations, and the economic duress and the statement that…
“Used to be — in the old days — the media image roughly corresponded to reality. But now it’s all reversed. The media image is the reality, and by comparison day-to-day life seems to lack excitement. So now day-to-day life is false, and the media image is true.”
…do make this feel surprisingly more contemporary than it is — provided you ignore the fax machine, pagers, and casual workplace bullying, plus the woefully nonsensical HUD user’s manual, where you’d but on a visor and it would project the pages onto the ‘screen’ you saw…man, Crichton really did not understand technology in these specific regards, cf. Disclosure (1994), Prey (2002) — but the focus seems more on the evils of business, and the short-term comeuppance of, really, a single member of that institution, rather than on any sort of coherent story that holds together come the end and makes its point through a larger, more affecting failure. In this regard, it’s very Morality for Four Year-Olds.
So, can you go home? In this case, no. This was much more an exercise in nostalgia, and in recognising my own origin story, than it is evidence of something I’d enjoy as whole-heartedly now as an *ahem* year-old rather than as an *ahem*-minus-22 year-old. There’s absolutely evidence here that it was a book which put me on the path I’ve ended up on — the surprise revelation of the cause of the tragedy is an almost GAD-baiting Least-Likely Suspect reversal in its own right and one of the key surprises that really stuck with me over the two decades it’s been residing in my memory — but with adult eyes, and with the reading I’ve done since, this in no way compares to the sort of detailed, fair-play ethos I like in my fictional investigations. It’s fun, and in another 22 years I may have a fun time with it again, but it’s certainly a piece of my past.