Flight, By Adam Thorpe

A prolific and versatile writer takes control of an airborne political thriller. It's an exhilarating trip.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Freight dogs are pilots who take pride in their willingness to fly anything anywhere. Except that, one day in Istanbul, Bob Winrush discovers that his cargo is a consignment of arms destined for the Taliban, and walks off the job.

This principled stand has repercussions. The least is the loss of his subsequent employment - flying a Middle Eastern sheikh around in a customised DC-10, sauna and all. Then Winrush is attacked by thugs and the question arises of whether the arms were paid for with heroin. Soon he realises that the other crew members from the Taliban flight are being killed, one by one.

Winrush's interior world revolves around his pilot's training. He's conditioned to calibrate risk and plan strategy in the direst of circumstances, and never to lose control. It is a mindset that comes in useful off the flight deck, not least in the masterly opening scene when he catches his wife in flagrante with a masseur. A pilot's reaction time is fast; seconds slow down while details are processed: "The room was heady with lavender oil: Olivia's neck, shoulders and clavicles were glossed, as was her open lower lip and the tongue resting on it. There was a ball of tissue, grey with moisture, by the man's shin."

Part of this novel's narrative is set in Dubai. Adam Thorpe captures its soulless post-modernism perfectly. With an Israeli journalist on his trail, and after escaping what might have been a car bomb, Winrush elects to lie low. Most of the second half takes place in the Outer Hebrides, and Thorpe's evocation of the wilderness is impressive.

Thorpe has obviously carried out his research minutely. It comes as no surprise to learn that several close relatives have worked in aviation and that he consulted a couple of UN arms experts.

Thorpe is a prolific writer: he has published 11 novels and short-story collections, as well as six books of poetry and a radically fresh translation of Flaubert's Madame Bovary. With a writer of his calibre, all this is cause for celebration, though there must be concerns about whether such prodigious output could be compromising his standards.

With Flight, the answer is a qualified negative - qualified, because the literary thriller genre allows for a certain latitude. Later in the narrative, there is some slackening of the elevated prose and nuanced insights, but by then his main focus is on plot resolution. The brutal climax is related to these competing demands; one wonders whether Thorpe might have done better with a less explicit ending. Nevertheless, Flight is full of fine writing, with a compelling tale that will keep readers securely fastened into their seats.