Terminal Event, James Thayer

Simon & Schuster, 1999, 347 pages, C$37.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84210-6

Don’t trust Terminal Event‘s cover blurb. It says something about an air-crash investigator fighting against colleagues who think a crash was human error. It suggests something about a battle of wit between the investigator and a mad serial bomber. It’s even more deceitful than the usual cover blurb. (Though it gets the protagonist’s name right) It’s a disservice to the book, really, because Terminal Event is a much, much better book than what the blurb may lead you to think.

This novel opens with a harrowing scene: Narrator Joe Durant, formerly of the National Transportation Security Board, walks through a forest peppered with the aftermath of an airplane crash. Metal fragments are scattered along with human body parts as Durant quickly assesses the situation and realizes what has to be done. He barely has time to cede control to authorities before upchucking his lunch. His wife was on the flight.

Before long, he’s back in with the NTSB. Grieving (but not too much), he helps in piecing together a theory about what happened. His is not the only theory: others ideas are floating around, and one of Terminal Event‘s rare pleasures is in tracking down some very different red herrings. In some ways, it’s an interesting dilemma: Joe’s theory isn’t sexy, but it’s his. As readers, do we want the drama of, say, a surfaced-launched missile or do we want to see our hero being proven right with a decidedly less exciting theory?

Joe is not alone, of course. In addition to his colleagues, he’s also assigned a hard-as-nail female FBI liaison. She gets to see what he does at the NTSB; he gets to see what she does at the FBI. In one of those easy dramatic shortcuts jaded readers learn to ignore, Joe ends up being present at almost every twist and turn of three different investigations. He’s threatened, bribed, confused, decried and -surprise!- ultimately triumphant… though not in the way anyone could expect.

There is no doubt that Terminal Event is a techno-thriller that veers very close to engineering fiction. The details about the work the NTSB performs are endlessly fascinating, but for a specific crowd. Tom Clancy fans will go nuts for the nuts-and-bolts minutia of air-crash investigations. But more casual thriller writers shouldn’t despair; Thayer is remarkably efficient in turning out accessible prose. Terminal Event passed the acid test of thrillers by making your reviewer read far too late in the night for “just one more chapter.”

There’s a lot to like about this book, from the narrative energy to the sympathetic narrator. Even better is the book’s multiple competing plot threads, one (or none) of which may just be the solution to the whole sorry mess. Unlike other novels, Terminal Event seldom tips its hand, keeping those storylines equally compelling all the way through. Also refreshing is a light romance that never overwhelms the book, and the resolution of said romance.

What isn’t as successful is the storyline following the narrator’s grief, which is seldom brought up and almost ends up as an incidental subplot. A long time passes during which the issue of the dead wife isn’t even brought up. The discovery of her body, for instance, is mentioned almost casually as something having happened days before. In fact, the subjective duration of the events in Terminal Event is puzzling; all the action is supposed to “fit” in ten days, but it seems considerably longer, especially during the first half of the book.

But no matter; Terminal Event is a deeply original, constantly interesting thriller. It’s readable like few others and contains enough details about the NTSB to double as a light non-fiction article on the mindset of its investigators. Just buy it without reading the cover blurb.

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