Book review: Flight
ADAM Thorpe’s last novel, Hodd, a grim anti-Romantic revisionary version of the Robin Hood legends, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott historical novel prize. It was brilliantly written, but difficult, not immediately “accessible” – to employ last year’s Man Booker judges’ term of approval.
Flight could scarcely be more different. It is a gripping thriller from its first sentence: “If you’re having an affair with a freight dog’s wife, you should check the world’s weather.” A freight dog is a pilot who ferries cargo, sometimes of dubious origin, to destinations that may be equally dubious, usually with no questions asked. This is what Bob Winrush does, and when he returns unexpectedly early from one such trip, he finds his wife in bed with another one, and his world begins to crumble.
Involved in a messy and painful divorce, he is soon dismissed by the rich Sheikh whose private plane – a converted DE10 with on-board sauna and Jacuzzi – he has been flying. The Sheikh has got word of an incident in Bob’s past – a more than usually dubious deal he walked away from – and is quick to disembarrass himself of an employee who is evidently damaged goods. It is in Dubai that Bob is dismissed and before he can leave to return to England, he finds his past catching up with him frighteningly quickly.
There is a young Israeli journalist investigating the story of that deal – a flight to Turkmenistan which Bob abandoned in Istanbul because it smelled wrong. There is also the question of what that plane may have carried on the return journey. And there are also some particularly nasty types who call on Bob in his 25th-floor apartment, and give him the fright of his life.
Things don’t get easier when he returns to grey and wet England. The divorce is working its way out – his wife has a new lover – and his son, David, a student in Manchester, is a member of a group campaigning against the arms trade, and in internet communication with that Israeli journalist. This is worrying enough, but then he learns that others involved or interested in that deal are either dead or have disappeared. His own life is in danger, and the net is closing. His flight engineer, Big Al McAllister, probably his closest friend, is soon equally alarmed. Both must make themselves scarce. Fortunately being a freight dog has paid well – the dodgier the freight carried, the more rewarding the flight. Big Al will head for the Virgin Islands. At his suggestion Bob will take refuge in a croft house, owned by Al’s family, on the Hebridean island of Scourlay.
At this point, half-way through, the novel changes gear, the frenetic pace slowing. Posing as a bird enthusiast (though insufficiently up on the subject), calling himself by a name that is not his own, and living in a damp house without electricity, Bob hunkers down and gets to know the few inhabitants, permanent and transient, on the island. Some regard him with suspicion; what is he doing there? Is he perhaps a spy employed by a company wanting to build a wind-farm on the island?
Having a threatened man go into hiding from his enemies is a classic thriller device – think of Buchan’s last Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep, or Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. But in the world of the internet and mobile phones there is no hiding-place that is now sufficiently remote – unless you eschew all communication with the outer world; and this is something Bob can’t, for good reasons, bring himself to do. The more he learns, the keener his anxiety, and the more likely it is that his past will catch up with him even here.
The novel is written with zest and great authority, the flying passages owing something to Thorpe’s own family background (his father worked for PanAm for 35 years). He brings off the difficult change of gear successfully, and his flawed hero is both convincing and likeable. Other characters are more fully fleshed out than is usual in thrillers. The plot is elaborate, at times far-fetched, but never strains the bounds of credibility too far.
When novelists with a high literary reputation, such as Thorpe has enjoyed since his first novel Ulverton was published, set out to write a thriller, they too often give the impression that their tongue has strayed into their cheek, that they feel superior to their mat- erial. There is no such suggestion here. Thorpe is a craftsman as well as an artist, and the book is well put together, with respect for the genre. Like William Boyd, Thorpe is a thorough professional. Thorpe convincingly portrays a world in which the means of communication have shrunk the world and made privacy hard to secure.
by Adam Thorpe
Jonathan Cape, 394pp. £16.99
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West