A 3-Part Guide To Airport Thrillers (1)


My flight is delayed. I’m in Gatwick Airport, where newsagent-souk WH Smith have attempted to take themselves a tad more upmarket by separating out their curated books from the main shop. The upmarket book part is called ‘BOOKS’. The other part should be called ‘INFLATABLE NECK BRACES, CRAYON SETS AND TOBLERONES’, the idea being that the books are for intelekshuls and the rest is for the Galaxy-Bar-and-a-copy-of-Razzle crowd.

In the BOOKS part are turgid psycho-thrillers all called IN MY EYES or YOU KNOW ME. There’s a peculiar business section full of books called LIE YOUR WAY TO THE TOP and another true crime section full of books called ROGUE TRADER, which seem to cancel each other out. There will be copies of THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT everywhere because it’s too huge to miss in every sense, although I feel I need to go back and reread 1 and 2 before tackling another eleventy-thousand pages. But hey, Mantel, a bloody amazing writer. And there will be a now very tiny section for the airport thriller.

In the flashy 1970s it was a genre that could hold its head up high; a wodge of fast-paced boilerplate writing about three inches thick, bolted together by authors who had flown a Spitfire in the war and had been in MI5. Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Paul Gallico, Alistair MacLean, Nevil Shute, Frederick Forsyth, Clive Cussler, all males of course – were any airport thrillers written by women?  Harold Robbins and Danielle Steel brought in a slutty new soap opera element but the fun was gone. Luckily Michael Crichton and then Lee Child brought the airport thriller back to life with a roar.

A few writers combined thumping good reads with excellent writing. Richard Doyle wrote a handful, the best being ‘Imperial 109’, about the trip of an Imperial Airways Empire class flying boat which carried mail, cargo and a dozen passengers through Africa and Egypt to Paris. And of course on this flight there’s a tough captain, an international jewel thief (or something similar), theft, blackmail, murder and luxury. In fact, the Sunday Times said ‘If you cut up Airport, The Thirty Nine Steps and Murder On The Orient Express, shuffle the bits around and splice them together you might achieve the effect of ‘Imperial 109′. Pure joy in storytelling.’ The point, though, is that Doyle can write so smoothly that the pages pretty much read themselves.

He wasn’t the only one to understand the airport thriller, though. There were a number of others…(Continued tomorrow)

8 comments on “A 3-Part Guide To Airport Thrillers (1)”

  1. Andrew Holme says:

    …Arthur Hailey being one of them, I trust.

  2. Peter Tromans says:

    The Imperial Airways’ Short Empire flying boat is the finest way for a British lady or gentleman to travel to an exotic location, Singapore, Cape Town, Sydney. ‘Land’ on a lake somewhere in Africa to take tea. Such beautiful machines!

  3. Bernard says:

    I rarely give up reading a book in the middle but I just tossed M.R.C Kasasian’s The Curse of the House of Foskett aside half way through. I know Mr. Fowler has commended Mr. Kasasian’s writing in this blog and I am curious to understand why.

    I read the first book in the series some time ago and it left little or no impression. So it was after reading Mr. Fowler’s comments here that I tried this second novel. I found it repetitious, beyond absurd, and directionless. Yes, after a few pages we know that Sidney Grice is arrogant, rude, and can out-Sherlock Sherlock with his instant deductions. So why do we need demonstrations every few pages? Yes, we see that the victims and their associates are ludicrous exaggerations of Victorian rogues but how many variations on a theme do we need before it becomes tiresome? And yes, the method of bumping off each new victim becomes increasingly bizarre but this seems to be an exercise in the authors creative imagination rather than a way to advance the plot.

    Perhaps, the second half of the novel makes everything clear. I’ll never know nor will I regret that. But because I admire the writing and plotting of the B&M books it would really be interesting to learn what it is in the Gower Street series that Mr. Fowler admires.

  4. Bob Low says:

    I seem to have a dim memory that Stanley Kubrick, in an interview towards the end of his life, was asked the vexed question why his film adaptation of ‘The Shining’ was so different from Stephen King’s book. He replied, and I paraphrase freely from memory, something like, ‘Because it was sh-t. It’s the sort of book people buy in airports’. Lord love Stanley Kubrick.

  5. Wayne Mook says:

    King said some disparaging things about Kubrick, saying he didn’t understand horror, so it may have more a yar-boo-sucks reply. The film though takes part of Grady’s tale from the book and mixes it with Torrance’s, so there is more of the book in there than meets the eye.

    Also there was the other staple of the airport rack (the tall pole with wire shelves, don’t see them much now but did all of the squeak when you turned them?) – ‘The Bonkbuster.’


  6. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Bonkbuster’ racks had a special bearing in the base, and, like a car bought from a dodgy bloke called ‘Phil’ in Dalston, where the diff was packed with sawdust, fag-ends and oily swarf, so was this bearing. The centre pole was hollow, and acted as a soundboard, amplifying the screech as the rack was furtively rotated, usually by a sparkplug rep called Geoff, from Vange, as he pretended not to be looking at the covers of the Nick Carter books. Rotating the stand back the way it had come, would do two things: (1) a 200db eldritch screech: (2) cause copies of ‘Tropic Of Capricorn’, and ‘Sexus’ to fall from the rack on to the floor. The racks were made by ‘Pervrak’ of Driffield, in East Yorkshire. They are very rare now, and highly sought after by hipsters. A 1971 Pervrak XO model, in poor condition, was completely ignored by Drew Pritchard on an episode of ‘Salvage Hunters’ in April 2016.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    I went to look up Pervrak until the penny dropped, well I hope it was a penny. Sure these things weren’t made Scarfolk, Ian?


  8. Ian Luck says:

    Wayne – Scarfolk is West Yorkshire. As it’s stuck in an odd wrinkle in time, where every year is 1979, the amount of mint condition airport-type tat hanging about on screechy racks, along with cassettes, 8-track cartridges, and MFP Geoff Love albums must be phenomenal. It’s not worth it though – if you did manage to get out, you’d probably been lobotomised in there, not noticing that the 27 minutes you thought you’d been there was actually two days. Best give it a swerve, just to be on the safe side, eh?

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