Medusa’s Child, John J. Nance

Doubleday, 1997, 388 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-48343-0

Modern publishing is a weird beast, afflicted like it is with demanding profit margins from corporate owners, rising costs, fickle audiences and the incertitudes of marketing artistic products. In face of these dangers, the industry has developed defence mechanisms, the most visible of which has been a tendency to place authors in very narrow niches. How narrow? It depends on genres: Mystery fiction tends to recycle the same characters in dozens of adventures. Fantasy goes for fat trilogies of overlong material ripped off from earlier, better writers. In the thriller field, specialization can attain rarefied levels as some authors specialize in very specific environment. Dale Brown loves B-52s, Michael DiMercurio can’t get enough of submarines and John J. Nance is the field’s foremost commercial aviation thriller writer.

The specialization is not accidental: Writers are admonished to write about what they know best, and these three men have taken this suggestion literally: Brown used to fly on bombers, DiMercurio was a submariner and Nance not only is an “aviation consultant” for ABC, but was also (as of 1997) a professional airline pilot. He’s got eleven novels to his name, and all of them involve aviation to a degree or another.

In Medusa’s Child, the focus is on a tiny cargo airline, Scotair, the dream-come-true achievement of protagonist Scott McKay. But as the novel begins, the dream is about to end: Dogged by debts and bad luck, Scotair is down to it’s last reserves; if anything goes wrong –it’s the end of the line for everyone involved. And things are about to go very, very wrong indeed.

Within a few pages, the nightmare begins: A mysterious pallet is loaded aboard the leased 727 plane that Scotair is using, escorted by an even-more mysterious woman. Before long, mystery is replaced by terror as the crate is revealed to contain a nuclear bomb with enhanced EMP-generating capabilities. It’s all part of a complex revenge plan, but the threat is clear: within a few minutes, the bomb will detonate, destroying Washington and wiping electronic equipment across half of North America. Throw in a hurricane, the FBI and the American Armed Forces and you’ve got all the elements required for a crackling thriller.

One of the best things about Medusa’s Child is how it really compresses the action into a time-frame approaching real-time reading. Save for the prologue and epilogue, everything takes place in less than nine hours, exactingly minuted through section headers. Of course, thanks to some devilishly convoluted complications, there is scarcely a break available once the timer starts ticking.

One thing that Nance does exceedingly well, here or in the other books I’ve read from him, is dangle the possibility of a early tidy ending throughout the book. Medusa’s Child is packed with subplots which contain the very real possibility of resolution. But something always happens to cut it off at the last minute. At least two ways to defuse the threat are discussed –but are revealed too late. I especially liked the way Nance toys with his readers’ expectations: Given that this is an airborne thriller, it can only end once the plane has landed, right? “Unity of setting”, isn’t it? Well, Nance serves one almost-landing, then another false one, showing that he understands the game being played with his audience. It becomes nearly annoying, but also very thrilling as things just can’t seem to go right for the protagonists. Even when you think that it’s over, there’s one final niggling detail to fix –and it’s a good one. That final stunt is a piece of work, even for a reader who has read techno-thrillers for years.

Granted, Nance makes up in breathless pacing what he blurs in credibility. There are a number of logical howlers here and there (to say more would be a spoiler), but they’re difficult to notice given how they’re buried under the rhythm of the story. But that’s the prerogative of thriller writer; if they succeed at making the story fly, no-one is going to complain about occasional details. Suffice to say that Medusa’s Child is excellent entertainment and that beach readers shouldn’t look any further. Good stuff, well-handled by a professional writer and aviator.

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