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.