FICTION: A thrilling debut in which a pilot must crash his plane to save his family.
"Falling" by T.J. Newman; Avid Reader Press (304 pages, $28)
Early into "Falling," and not long into a flight from Los Angeles to New York, the pilot-protagonist Bill Hoffman takes a calculated risk and confides in a hushed tone to his friend. "Jo," he whispers. "We have a situation." Which is something of an understatement.
For Bill's tricky situation is the novel's terrifying premise. His wife and children have been kidnapped by terrorists. If he wants to save their lives he must crash his plane, killing all 149 people onboard.
Phoenix-based T.J. Newman had her eureka moment for her first novel while working as a flight attendant. Unable to shake the idea, she went on to write a lot of the book on cross-country red-eye flights when passengers were sleeping. She sent it out to 41 literary agents, all of whom turned it down. The 42nd agent took her on, submitted it to an editor, and secured a lucrative deal. A much-rejected manuscript has become one of the most talked-about debuts of the year.
Like all good thrillers, "Falling" gets off to a dramatic start and maintains its momentum. Twenty-five pages in and Bill, cocooned in his cockpit, is jolted by an image on his laptop of his wife, Carrie, strapped with an explosive suicide vest. An e-mail instructs him to put on his headphones. The man speaking to him appears on the screen clad in a similar vest and holding a detonator. Bill's 10-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter make up the other captives. His instructions, though hard to take in, are short and to the point: "Crash your plane, or I kill your family. The choice is yours."
Stymied by his dilemma, Bill turns to doughty flight attendant Jo. She manages to get word out to her nephew Theo, an FBI agent whose reputation is in tatters. Seizing an opportunity to redeem himself, Theo goes off in pursuit of the terrorist. But Bill's nemesis remains one step ahead. Not only does he prove both elusive and destructive on the ground, but his unknown mole on the plane means he is also capable of wreaking havoc in the air.
Newman's various narrative strands resemble high-voltage live wires. One tense predicament replaces another, from poison gas attacks to mutinous passengers to orders to kill the co-pilot or shoot down the plane. The suspense is heightened by the fact that the terrorist is not open to negotiation. He isn't after money or a prisoner exchange. "All I want is to see what a good man — a good American man — does when he's in a no-win situation."
Sporadic flashbacks to the past are a distraction and clunky clichés mar some of the dialogue ("Your badge is mine," growls Theo's boss). But these are mere niggles when set against the book's considerable strengths, not least its frenetic pace, numerous cliffhangers and one almighty twist. Ignore the blizzard of hype, suspend all disbelief and enjoy the ride.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.