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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

See also:  http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart

My name:  Brian Martin

Night Fall by Nelson DeMille

Night Fall - Nelson DeMille

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God! - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Oh, sorry. That's the quotation that editor John Campbell gave a young Issac Asimov, and which became the basis for the latter's short story "Nightfall."

Nelson DeMille begins his book with a different quotation, this one from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.

Of course, Campbell's opinion was somewhat different from Emerson's. As he told Asimov, if men saw stars only once in a thousand years, he figured when they did they'd go mad.

As it happens, DeMille's book is also about madness. The madness of conspiracy and cover-up and the devastating consequences that can result from them.

It begins on a pleasant July evening in 1996 -- July 17, to be exact -- with a couple of randy adulterers sneaking down to a Long Island beach and setting up a video camera to record their amorous adventures. Their tryst is interrupted when a missile rises from the ocean, homes in, and blows a passenger jet out of the sky. That jet is -- was -- TWA 800, and none of its 230 passengers and crew survived. In their car, racing from the scene, the woman looks at the videotape and sees everything. She wants to turn it in. But the man, knowing his affair will be exposed if they do, says they should destroy it. The story then skips ahead five years. Do the math, and you will see where this is going. But Night Fall, except for the subtextual resonance, is all about TWA 800.

That, and John Corey and his wife, Kate Mayfield. I didn't know it going in, but this is actually the third in a series of John Corey books. And here I was, giving DeMille all kinds of credit for bringing up past events in John's life and then not forcing us to endure long flashback episodes to fully explain them. I had no idea this wasn't because he realized it wasn't necessary, but because he'd already covered them all in the previous two books. So scratch all that.

This is still a hell of a book.

Since we see what the illicit couple saw, we know from the beginning what "really" happened to TWA 800. And, as any Columbo fan knows, knowing only makes solving the mystery more fun. It is a mystery, because John Corey, ex-NYPD and currently on contract with the Anti-Terrorist Task Force, doesn't know much about the case going in. He only knows that it's closed -- and that means closed, buddy -- and that his wife, who is FBI, doesn't believe that it ought to be. That leaves him between the government and his wife, and for a loose cannon like Corey, the correct choice is obvious.

I've only read one other book by DeMille, The Charm School, and I liked that one, too. One of the things I liked about it was the dialogue. Not just that it's snappy, but that there's a lot of it. It's an under-appreciated aspect of novel writing, and I was happy to discover that The Charm School wasn't an aberration. This novel, too, is full of dialogue -- snappy, witty, informative, character-building dialogue.

DeMille's decision to introduce the couple on the beach was an excellent one, providing him (and Corey) with the driving force behind the action. Corey learns early about the existence of the couple and the evidence that they may have inadvertently filmed the event. He doesn't know if they're still alive, but he knows he'll never be able to solve the case without them. Most of the story, then, is detective work, as Corey tracks down the witnesses, not knowing what he'll find, but encouraged by the increasing trouble he manages to stir up.

This is a man's adventure, but not especially hardboiled. Corey's a cop so he's not going around killing a lot of people. But it is chock full of insult-bonding between men, which (even for men) can get old really fast, but DeMille keeps it light and funny for the most part. It really only gets annoying, going practically brain-dead, in one sequence that has Corey facing off with a man that he despises. And this is a very minor quibble. The book also contains some lively man-woman repartee, especially between Corey and his wife.

I rarely read a book I "can't put down," but this was definitely one I was looking forward to picking up again.