Crash test dummies

Sean French prefers high-tech hardware to cardboard characters: Airframe by Michael Crichton, Century, pounds 16.99

The curious thing about Michael Crichton is that he isn't much good at the things best-selling writers are supposed to be good at. He has almost no interest in story-telling or plot construction. The climactic twist in each of his last three thrillers (which all concern companies on the verge of a big deal) depends on the pivotal event being accidentally recorded: by a security camera in Rising Sun, by an answering machine in Disclosure, by a camcorder in Airframe. He can't write action scenes; unfortunately, he writes them anyway, and the example in the new book is both tedious and almost laughably irrelevant.

His gift is for technical and bureaucratic processes, the very things that most literary novelists skimp on, and he manages to make them exciting. This can have some peculiar results. The really thrilling, page-turning part of Jurassic Park was the first 150 pages or so, with all the technical details about how dinosaur DNA might be farmed and replicated, and the interesting use of chaos theory (botched in the film) to explain why the dinosaur theme park was likely to go wrong. It was the last half of the book, in which cardboard dinosaurs pursued cardboard characters, that was barely readable.

This is why Michael Crichton's finest project is ER, a television show that has eliminated the traditional structure of stories and relationships and is based almost entirely on the absorbing detail of what goes on in a casualty department. A team of brilliant writers and actors added one more ingredient - living human beings, a species hitherto absent from Crichton's work.

Crichton also has a canny, often unpleasant, instinct for dark primitive fears: of genetic engineering in Jurassic Park; of foreigners in Rising Sun; of powerful women in Disclosure; and in Airframe, our fear of flying.

Even those of us who know that flying is far safer than cycling to work will feel our pulses quicken on page two: "She clutched at her daughter, pulling her close. Now it felt like the plane was going straight down, and then suddenly it was going up, and her stomach was pressed into the seat."

Airframe begins with a mysterious incident on a passenger flight that leaves three passengers dead and the aircraft interior almost totally destroyed. The explanation must be found in a week, or the plane's manufacturer will collapse.

Contrary to some reports, this is not a thriller about air safety. It is a thriller about the perception of air safety, which is a much more interesting and complicated subject. Consequently, Crichton's leading character is not the chief of the accident investigation but Casey Singleton, the Quality Assurance rep on the Incident Review Team. She must not only find out what went wrong but deal with the irresponsible press reaction. This relatively contained accident draws in the plane's manufacturer, its clients all over the world, the company's workers and the media.

Crichton's account of the relationship between them is awesomely impressive. He may describe a woman as if he has only read about one in a manual, but he is wonderfully particular about what exactly happens in an investigation, the way things work and, just as important, the way things don't work.

The weirdly gifted Crichton can make the question of document storage seem exciting and a night-time chase through an aircraft hangar seem boring. There is a brilliant three-page scene on how to be interviewed on television.

The final twist is a bit of a disappointment, especially if, like me, you have read the news item which gave Crichton the idea. But the pages of my copy have gone puffy from being read for too long in the bath: a far more telling sign of approbation.

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