This airline thriller is an exciting debut for author TJ Newman. She puts her decade of experience as a flight attendant to good use in conveying an in-depth understanding of the mindsets of passengers, crew and air traffic control, not to mention realistic details regarding equipment and procedure. It has received massive hype from the publisher that has helped propel it to number three on the New York Times Best Seller list. And Hollywood has noticed. Falling has already been picked up by Universal Pictures. But is it worth the hype? Yes and no.
The five-page prologue is, it turns out, a recurring nightmare experienced by commercial airline pilot Bill Hoffman. Starting (or ending) a book with a dream is not a particularly strong way to begin, but in this case, the waking nightmare soon starts.
Coastal Airways’ chief pilot has asked Bill to take on a Saturday Los Angeles to New York flight, one he wasn’t scheduled to fly. It means he’ll have to miss his 10-year-old son Scott’s first little league game. He justifies this with the always-unsatisfactory argument that he couldn’t say no. The morning of the flight, Bill’s wife Carrie, annoyed at this change in plans, bids him a frosty good-bye. The awkwardness of the scene is intensified by the presence of a stranger, a repairman from CalCom come to fix their Internet.
A moment after Bill leaves, the repairman pulls a gun on Carrie, and she, Scott and baby Elise become hostages. There’s a window of time until the plane is wheels-up, and Bill hopes to talk with Carrie and mend fences. But of course, he cannot reach her. The interaction between Carrie and her kidnapper, Sam, is a little odd throughout, but especially in their early interactions. Apparently, neither of them is an expert in abduction.
Coastal Airways Flight 416 has nearly 150 souls on board when it leaves LAX for the five-and-half-hour flight, including Bill, his first officer Ben, and flight attendants Jo, Michael and Kellie. Kellie is new, but Jo and Bill are old friends, and she and Michael have worked together for so many years she calls him Daddy. They fall into comfortable ways of interacting that might be viewed as stereotypical or might just reflect years of working together. Suffice it to say that they and the other characters are very American in outlook and behaviour and seem made for the movie version.
Once the plane is airborne, Bill receives a text from Carrie. “At last,” he thinks. It’s picture of her and Scott wearing black hoods, and she’s outfitted with an explosive vest. The kidnappers’ reveal their demand: Bill must crash the plane when it reaches New York or his family will be vaporised. Newman has set up a legitimately high-stakes conflict, as Bill must choose between the two prime loyalties of his life: the fate of the plane and its passengers and the fate of his family.
When Flight Attendant Jo learns what’s going on, she messages her Los Angeles-based FBI-agent nephew, Theo, which brings law enforcement into the picture. Unfortunately, Theo has lost standing in the agency and his unreasonable, hard-ass female boss barely listens to him as he suggests strategies for finding the family. Now there’s excruciating time pressure on the ground as well as in the air.
Word spreads that something’s amiss on Flight 416. (Passengers and their social media fixations! Messaging, not thinking!). This grabs media interest across the nation, putting pressure on the other decisionmakers being drawn into the process.
Interestingly, this novel doesn’t take much longer to read it than the flight would take in real-life. At an emotional level, the story works. Once Newman gets rolling, it is a real nail-biter, even though you’ll probably anticipate the next escalation.
It’s at the point where you start to have second thoughts that the story loses punch. Some developments are way too predictable. For example, a person the crew mistrusted acts heroically and vice-versa. Along the way, Bill finds out the why of the crime, and what he does with that information seems implausible. The baseball scenes – I won’t say how they fit in, but there are some – have the inspirational heft of a 1940s movie. Outside America, and maybe even inside, these scenes will likely engender an eye-roll. (Also, recall that the initial discord between Bill and Carrie is because he’s missing Scott’s baseball game. Maybe things are different in California, but little leagues generally start up in the spring, so when you learn New York is obsessed with the last game of the World Series, which comes in late fall, you might find yourself saying, ‘huh?’)
You should discover the details of the unfolding plot for yourself and how Newman captures the behaviour of people in extreme situations. The characterisations of the crew, especially, are strong. I’ll just say I’m glad my first post-COVID airplane trip is months away!
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars