Back in the 1990s there were a bunch of thriller movies which started with Speed with essentially the same plot. Madman gets hapless patsy to pilot/drive a vehicle full of unsuspecting passengers as some form of revenge for some perceived or real wrong. These movies are all based around tricked out versions of the Trolley Problem – do you kill a small number of people to save many more? First time author TJ Newman is obviously a fan of these narratives and being an ex-flight attendant where else would she set her wicked ethical problem but on a plane. And so we have her debut novel: Falling.
After what can only be described as an exploitative and unnecessary cold open, Falling finds pilot Bill Hoffman abandoning his family to take up a last minute change to fly from LA to New York. Not long into the flight he learns that his wife and two children have been kidnapped and he is told by the kidnapper that he must crash the plane or his family will be killed. Bill is also told that he will have to throw poison gas into the main cabin before the crash (for no apparent reason) and that there is a backup terrorist on board the plane to keep him honest. Despite being told to tell no one about this, Bill trusts his flight crew to support him in thwarting the plan. On the ground, disgraced FBI agent Theo Baldwin is on thin ice but has to convince his boss to give him a second chance when he gets a message from his aunt Jo, the head flight attendant on the doomed flight about the plot.
Following this set up, the rest of the novel is pretty much what readers would expect. Bill finds clever ways to talk to the ground without the terrorists finding out, Theo keeps following his gut rather than listening to his boss because lives are at stake and he knows best, the flight crew manage to rally to the passengers to work as a team, and Bill’s wife Carrie tries to empathise with her captor whiles also plotting her escape. Newman’s experience working on planes shines through in her descriptions of the flight crew and their relationship with each other, giving a needed dose of reality into an increasingly unbelievable situation. And every chapter the plane gets closer to its ultimate destination.
Planes have traditionally provided great locations for movie thrillers – the feeling of claustrophobia and helplessness, the ease with which everything can go so easily wrong. But the advantage of movies is that the ability to overload the senses and the speed at which they move allow them even more than books to paper over cracks in story and character. Books do not tend to get that luxury. And Falling suffers as a result.
This narrative has all of the requisite thrills and cliffhangers but it fundamentally does not make any sense. It requires readers to empathise with the main characters enough and turn the pages quickly and not think about the set up or the way it plays out. One of the aspects standing in the way of that are the numerous, completely unnecessary italicised flashback sections. Without wanting to give any of the twists away, given all the advantages at their disposal, the bad guys end up with the most inefficient way to carry out their plan. The best that can be said about the plan is that they pick Bill because they want to make a point about innocent people having to make impossible life or death decisions. But even that does not really make any sense in the context of the whole plot.
At its best, Falling is a shout out to the tireless work of flight attendants whose job it is to keep hundreds of people stuck in a pressurised tin can content for hours on end. At its worst (particularly the completely unnecessary baseball scenes) it is the type of flag waving Americana that might appeal to a certain section of the intended audience but that is undercut by the very real political points made by the “bad guys”. In between that, this is a totally unbelievable but effective beach-read thriller that, if readers do not stop to ask any questions of it, will at least keep them turning the pages.