A 3-Part Guide To Airport Thrillers (2)
The British-Canadian author Arthur Hailey was so generic in his choice of airport thrillers that he called one ‘Airport’ and another ‘Hotel’, and wrote a detective novel called, you guessed it, ‘Detective’. If your gate was closing and you needed something to read fast, at least you knew what you were getting.
Airport thriller writers were simple folk who liked working with mechanics; not for them the frailties of the human heart. They wrote about things that could be fixed with the application of technology, or a spanner. Their doorstops were perceived as having a Meccano-like male appeal built into them like the superstructure of an aircraft carrier. Their authors liked big things; cruise ships and trucks and trains and gigantic skyscrapers, all of which could be smashed into, blown up or burned down.
Herein lies the clue to the genre’s death.
The events of 9/11 killed the eerie pleasure of watching burning bodies fall from windows. In a world where high security CCTV, knife arches, viruses, terrorists, bomb and truck-proof barriers heightened the sensitivities of nervous people, the airport thriller could no longer thrill. The modern world can’t be fixed with a spanner. Their heroes once had a smidgen of relevance for their readership. They proved that things could quickly be restored to normal – but that model has now vanished. We don’t believe them anymore.
Most airport thrillers worked like ‘The Towering Inferno’. A journey, a disaster, a motley group of survivors, a hero in public service, the day saved, the wrongs righted, everything put back tidily in the toy box. Hovering over everything is an air of unreality. It’s something Lee Child cleverly plays upon. Among the sparse handful of modern-day thriller writers, Child remains the exception, balancing wink-to-the-camera square jawed antics while neatly outrunning reader expectations. But there are some well-written airport thrillers to be found from that earlier, simpler time.
We remember Muriel Gray as the spiky-haired blonde Scot TV presenter, but she showed a very different side with her three airport novels, ‘The Trickster’, ‘The Ancient’ and ‘Furnace’. She added a supernatural twist to her Big-Thing books, and went a step further; whether setting her story on ocean-going tankers or cross-country big rigs, she did her homework by getting fully on board, staying on a tanker and entering the truck driving world so that she wrote from hard experience. This is the old-fashioned ‘live it, then write it’ approach that yields the kind of detail you can’t get from a library, and it’s a pity she stopped.
Also on the quality list was Lionel Davidson, whose odd stop-start career brought us ‘Smith’s Gazelle’, a moving parable set in 1967’s Six Day War, and the thriller ‘The Rose of Tibet’. After a quarter of a century’s hiatus he suddenly reappeared with ‘Kolymsky Heights’, a tremendous thriller that gained an international reputation largely through word of mouth. In the permafrost depths of Siberia one man has to get into a Russian research station and find a way out alive – and the chase is on. Davidson concentrated on making his linguistics-specialist hero unusual and memorable.
Adding an SF twist, Michael Crichton became one of the last kings of the airport thrillers with his quasi-scientific approach to storytelling. From rogue nano-bots to reconstituted DNA his stories feel topical and seem possible (they’re not quite) and his human characters are pleasingly flawed. The old world of Eric Ambler thrillers had men being put through their paces like machines. Crichton knew that human frailty would undo scientific advance – in ‘The Andromeda Strain’ a character fails to register a warning sign because she suffers from undiagnosed photo-sensitive epilepsy. And there’s a simple conviction to his storytelling that doesn’t deny intelligence.
There are two others we should talk about in this now moribund genre, and it won’t be pretty. (Concludes tomorrow)