A good thriller, like a good man, is hard to find. Some are too macho and hard-boiled. Some turn out to be romances in disguise, Mr Right masquerading as cop. Some try too hard to be literary and vanish up their own existential backsides.
Janette Turner Hospital's new novel begins promisingly. Like all her work, it tackles large, public themes, in this case terrorism and espionage. Her hero, Lowell, plummets into despair every September, drinking too much, neglecting his children, irritating his ex-wife, working sloppily. No wonder - this is the anniversary of his mother's death. Lowell, aged 16 at the time, has never been able to come to terms with the trauma. He copes by trying to forget the brutal facts: his mother died because her Paris-New York flight was hijacked, and the hostages were subsequently murdered.
Lowell's father, a government spy, has just died. Now the son is contacted by two strangers. His father's ex-psychiatrist gives him the key to a locker at the airport and hints he will find important and dangerous secrets therein. Samantha, founder of an internet group called the Phoenixes, for the children of the people killed on the doomed plane, pesters Lowell by phone, begging for his attention and his help. She insists she has information from declassified documents which will reveal the whole truth about Air France 64. Gradually, Lowell is drawn into the quest for knowledge, risking his life in the process.
The story switches between narrators to reveal the surprising connections between all the passengers on the plane, which mirror the web of espionage woven between the terrorists and the masters of surveillance in Washington. Lowell's father turns out to be deeply implicated in the plot.
Alas, the novel, which comes larded with quotations from Camus, is let down by its literary pretensions and its uneasiness. It wavers about, unsure whether it is a family romance or an investigation into the state of the nation. Turner Hospital would have done better had she gone easy on the psychological realism and tear-jerking. Two characters picking each other up in a Parisian bookshop indulge in longwinded flirtation which is meant to sound witty and sophisticated but comes across as excruciatingly embarrassing. The writing tries too hard to crank up our pity and terror: "There is a word for this, she knows, sinking, going under. There is a word for this, but the word will not come. Beneath the black water, she watches words swimming by: caritas, wandering earthling, rue de Birague, Camelot, le destin, in extremis, will you come? c'est l'amour, it is madness, the hot desert wind, Black Death, the wind that burns as it blows, Sirocco, the wind that burns and destroys, Kalashnikov, gas masks, explosion. Triage, that is the word."
This problem of register affects the language of the secret reports, hidden by his father in the airport locker, that Lowell finally gets round to reading. The papers labelled "Report Dossier", containing the history of the sting operation which resulted in the hijacking, seem astonishingly open and detailed for such classified material. Lowell's father's confessions to his psychiatrist, handily taped by the latter, are opulent to the point of hysteria. Would he not have been a little more repressed, occasionally tongue-tied and halting, with such explosive government secrets to guard? His training manuals for his baby spies, to which we have similarly privileged access, veer between lengthy jargon-filled explanations of ways of causing death and flights of grandiose sub-poetry.
Lowell Senior, meant to be a soul in torment, a split personality, comes across merely as a babbler. Finally he is presented as almost heroic: he did, after all, try to prevent his wife from boarding the fatal flight, and he did try to shield his son from the attention of spooks. Heroic, that is, by contrast with the ruthless Islamicist masterminding the operation, the terrorist who is the incarnation of evil, a sadist and torturer.
In a novel obviously inspired by 9/11, that purports seriously to discuss American politics, it is shameful that the causes of terrorism are nowhere addressed. Equally tacky is the story's final descent into sentimentality. The last hostages to die give us, as in bad opera, their innermost beautiful transcendent thoughts, and yes, you've guessed, the bookshop lovers are ecstatically reunited.