Hard Landing, Lynne Heitman

Onyx, 2001, 424 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-40972-8

I have a strange sense of humour, so when I looked over my stack of things to read in order to stock up for an imminent series of plane flights, my eye naturally gravitated toward Lynne Heitman’s Hard Landing, a book whose covers promised plenty of airborne mayhem.  (“Fasten your seat belts.”)  Where better to appreciate the white-knuckle thrills of aviation gone wrong than from within a plane?  As you can guess, I’m not a nervous flyer…

But the first surprise of Hard Landing it how little of it takes place on planes.  Sure, there’s an airplane crash distantly mentioned in the prologue.  Otherwise, though, this is an aviation thriller with both feet planted on the ground: It begins as thirty-something narrator Alex Shanahan lands at Boston’s Logan airport.  She’s supposed to start as the manager of operations for Majestic Airlines the next day, but the local union has decided to show her a lesson, and before she can even take off her high heels, Alex abruptly has to manage a crisis manufactured by her own employees.

It doesn’t get any better as the crisis is resolved and Alex formally takes on the reins of her new job.  Not only is she taking over from a predecessor who committed suicide, there are plenty of reasons to believe that it wasn’t suicide.  The union seems controlled by professional slackers; higher management is less than helpful; there are probably traitors in her office; Majestic Airlines’ recent history is both complicated and troublesome; and her efforts to find the truth are putting her in danger.

In-between the rest, her efforts to settle, make friends and deal with a failed romance also take up their share of time.  Alex’s first-person narration goes from one crisis to the next, credibly portraying a good woman thrown-in well over her head.  By the time she’s plotting with some disgruntled workers to expose a conspiracy with far-reaching impact within her own company, Hard Landing has managed to become a gripping tale without many of the usual plot drivers of airline thrillers.  Even by limiting her plotting to the ground, Heitman manages to wring a considerable amount of narrative energy from a sympathetic narrator, major problems and an unusual look at an aspect of commercial flying that most of us forget about.

Because, let’s face it: few travelers actually think about the complex logistics of airlines operations until they go wrong.  But Heitman (herself a writer with considerable experience in the airline business) is able to quickly sketch the enormous amount of stress in coordinating the activity behind the counter and under the planes.  Hard Landing should appeal to fans of procedural thrillers and docu-fictive novels such as Airport: It’s a painless and fascinating look at an entirely new world, and it’s almost instantly credible.

It’s also effective at setting an actual story within that world.  Hard Landing may not be quite the hard-edged thriller promised by its cover:  It does blend in quite a bit of romance, manages its private investigation in a distinctly feminine fashion (a chunk of the mystery hinges on discovering that Alex’s predecessor dealt with a lonely-hearts operation) and, as previously mentioned, spends very little time in the air.  But the result is a pleasant surprise rather than a disappointment: It’s an unusual, pleasant low-key thriller, and it more than held up my attention on four successive commercial flights.  I may even have smiled a little bit more than usual at the folks behind the counter.

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