Tag Archives: John J. Nance

Headwind, John J. Nance

<em class="BookTitle">Headwind</em>, John J. Nance

Jove, 2001, 432 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13262-4

One of genre writers’ most essential skills is the ability to cover one’s traces. It may be the difference between acclaimed writers and the hacks. What separates a tired formula from a successful one. Robert B. Parker’s Spencer books always work in roughly the same ways, for instance, but he does it so well that few fans will mind. Parker has perfected the formula for which he’s known, and he’s got the skills to play unobtrusive variations on it. (And when he gets tired of it, he writes something else.)

John J. Nance’s place in the thriller ecosystem is very specific: He’s the master of the civilian aviation thriller. Not only has he been a lawyer and a commercial pilot before turning to writing, he has also become a media expert in his chosen field, and his fiction has tackled everything from Cessnas to 747s. You may have heard about a few of his novels before: Both Pandora’s Clock and Medusa’s Child have been turned into made-for-TV movies, and some of his books have been acclaimed best-sellers: I’ve kept a particular fondness for Turbulence, for instance.

But the bag of tricks for a commercial aviation thriller writer can be a small one, and run-of-the-mill efforts such as Headwind can show how formulas can be limited if they’re not handled carefully.

The premise of this 2001 thriller, ironically, is more interesting today than it was at the time of its publication: While traveling to Europe, a former American President is indicted by a War Crimes tribunal for ordering an operation that ended up killing hundreds of innocent civilians. Only the efforts of daring airline pilots stop him from being arrested in Greece, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s up against enemies who seem to have all of Europe’s legal authorities on their side. The president is safe as long as he’s up in the air, but one can’t remain above it all forever…

The narrow field of civilian aviation thrillers only have a few subgenre-specific tricks up their sleeves: eventful take-offs, terrifying flights and difficult landings. The rest is just variations on a theme, and so it’s amusing to see Nance hit every one of those recipes at some point during the narrative, even when it doesn’t have much of an impact on the overarching plot. The novel starts with a bang as the president is flown out of Greece against the wishes of the departure airport. That’s not a bad introduction, and it serves to highlight the seriousness of the situation. But the other thrill-rides are far less organic to the plot: A character seemingly lives in remote Colorado for no other reason that to present a rough small airplane ride, while a flight to England is spectacularly re-routed to Ireland in an excuse for nap-of-the-earth flying. The novel’s climax is comfortably located on an empty loop as the characters try to fly somewhere, only to find out that then can’t (tee-hee, oops): their return landing is just as difficult as we’d expect in the last fifty pages of any thriller.

More intriguing is the legal maneuvering necessary to extricate the president from his indictment. The novel may have been partially inspired by the Pinochet arrest, there’s been some real-world discussions of forcible indictments for American executive orders in the years since Headwind was published: the actions of the Bush administration led a few to muse about trying the president and his executive for war crimes. Amusingly, those same discussions rob Headwind of some of its built-in assumption of presidential innocence: Today’s readers would be far more willing to consider the possibility that any president could be indicted for valid reasons.

Regrettably none of this makes Headwind anything more than a routine milk run in the universe of thrillers, whether they’re based on civilian aviation or not: the plot threads are showing a bit too clearly, and there’s a sense that the novel is gliding in-between the expected plot beats. Nance’s done better before and will almost certainly do better in the future. But his mastery of thriller mechanics isn’t perfect yet, and it’s books like Headwind that show why.

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.

Turbulence, John J. Nance

Jove, 2002, 405 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13486-4

Civil aviation has changed a lot since the jet-set era of the fifties. Lower ticket prices coupled with the airlines’ insatiable lust for higher profits have made modern air travel less comfortable and more stressful. “Air rage” has entered the vocabulary, reflecting the distasteful truth that planes will still take you to destination, but in unpleasant ways that may be unacceptable to an increasing proportion of passengers. As if that wasn’t enough, the demonstrated propensity of terrorists to use airliners as guided missiles has tightened the screws even further on the pressure boiler of civil aviation.

While aviation thrillers have existed for decades (reaching their height in popularity during the seventies, following the 1970 film adaptation of Arthur Hailey’s Airport), one of the best things about Turbulence is how uniquely modern it feels. Here, there is no glamour left in the cattle-like industry of air transport: Passengers are herded in uncomfortable planes, abused by airlines staff, ill-served by incompetent personnel, plunged in the middle of an overburdened airspace control system and at the constant mercy of a paranoid US government only too happy to eliminate security risks. Take a good long look at the 2002 publication date, because this book couldn’t have been published any earlier.

In this particular case, Turbulence‘s Meridian Flight Six is -thanks to the author- custom-loaded with a powder keg of resentment: a heart surgeon with a deep hatred for the airline that killed his wife, a sadistic senior flight attendant, an insecure captain, rowdy passengers, unsafe equipment and plenty of aggravations. The first leg of the flight, from Chicago to London, is bad enough. But when things go really wrong over Africa on the way to Cape Town, it all spins out of control: The passengers mutiny, the planes is forced to land on a jungle airstrip and the US government becomes convinced that terrorists armed with chemical weapons have taken control of the aircraft. When the plane doubles back toward Europe, fighter jets are mobilized to shoot it down before it can do any harm.

Nance is an old hand when it comes to thrillers (most who recognize his name will do so in his capacity of the author of the novel from which was adapted the TV series Pandora’s Clock, but he’s written ten other thrillers) and it shows: Turbulence is an ever-increasing exercise in heightening tension, as bad attitudes aboard the plane translate in small spats, leading up to more forceful arguments, physical confrontation and -ultimately- a good deal of violence. Meanwhile, the US government is confronted with mounting evidence of terrorist activities and is forced to take action against what it’s perceiving as a clear and immediate danger. While the various elements of Turbulence‘s suspense are a bit outlandish in how they all converge, there’s no denying that the result is a satisfying crescendo.

It helps, of course, that Nance has got the traditional thriller style down pat. The characters are developed just enough to make them sympathetic. It takes a while, but eventually all the pieces of the plot have a place in the action, and the result is quite a readable novel. As the clock ticks down to a conclusion, Turbulence delivers satisfying suspense and entertainment. Unfortunate readers struck down by a sudden cold half-way through the novel may end up having plane-related nightmares.

It’s not great art (the prose can be clunky at times) nor is it likely to be memorable, but it’s likely to be optioned by a studio any time soon. It it would be too presumptuous to flag the book as a call for reform in the airline industry (Meridian’s behaviour is a touch extreme, shall we say), but there’s no doubt that the picture described in this novel -however hyperbolic- reflects what many are thinking about modern civilian flight. It’s a fine line between affordable air travel and dangerous air travel; here’s hoping that Turbulence‘s suspense becomes increasingly unbelievable as things evolve.