I bet Michael Crichton was a kid who did his homework every night — and not only did it, but triple-checked it, made sure there were no smudges on the paper, then presented it to the teacher between card-stock covers secured with shiny brass fasteners. The ghost of the A-plus student, dogged about problem solving and keen to please, has hovered above each of Crichton’s best-sellers, from The Andromeda Strain (1969) to The Lost World (1995). Reading a writer this facile with the facts, it’s never a problem believing in resurrected dinosaurs, brainy gorillas, or viruses from space. Sure, his characters are as distinct as smoke puffs, but on the other hand, nobody else can make logarithms and computer printouts the stuff of gripping high adventure.
In Airframe, Crichton returns to the West Coast high-tech corporate milieu of Disclosure. Norton Aircraft, builders of commercial airliners, is in deep trouble. Plagued by executive wranglings, union problems, and cutthroat foreign competition, the huge company, headquartered in Burbank, Calif., is pegging its survival on the sale of 50 N-22 twin jets to China. But a couple of days before the deal is finalized, one of its planes, bound from Hong Kong to Denver, shudders wildly in midair, then stalls, nearly plummeting into the ocean. Although TransPacific Flight 545 manages to land safely at LAX, the interior cabin is shattered, 56 passengers are injured, some seriously, and three people are killed — including a member of the flight crew.
Enter Casey Singleton, Crichton’s compleat heroine: 36, divorced, a Norton VP in charge of ”quality assurance.” Working with a team of cranky but crackerjack engineers, Singleton conducts an exhaustive investigation, hoping to prove the mishap was caused by pilot error, not by any Norton design or manufacturing flaws. If the plane turns out to be unsafe, the China deal is kaput, and the company is flat out of luck. And business.
As much as Crichton relishes spieling off acronyms (LOI, JAA, NAIL, VHUD) and aviation-industry factoids (he says that a wide-body jet has a million parts and that it takes 75 days to build one), he’s savvy enough to realize that his readers expect more. So he obliges, of course, turning Singleton into a quirk-free sleuth and Norton Aircraft into a virtual circus of potboiler cliches. Bring on the union saboteurs, the conniving CEO, the treacherous company spy! Almost as tired, and as tiresome, is the story’s reliance on the clunkiest of plot gimmicks — the convenient discovery of a crucial videotape and a hesitant witness identified in the nick of time.
But if Airframe’s central mystery and peripheral skulduggery feel tame and familiar, the satire of TV journalism that kicks in to energize the novel’s second half is brutal and fresh and very funny. Problem is, Jennifer Malone, the arrogant and belligerently ill-informed segment producer of Newsline, who sets out to expose the N-22 as a ”death trap,” is so awful — awful but vital — that she blows Casey Singleton and her stolid band of detective engineers right off the page. Whenever Malone appears, our good guys seem downright wooden.
Like Arthur Hailey in the ’60s and ’70s (remember Airport, Hotel, and Wheels?), Crichton has a real knack for popularizing corporate and professional subcultures. And even when he’s not writing at the top of his form, which is certainly the case here, he still has a real genius (or a seer’s gift) for anticipating high-tension issues and national jitters. In the aftermath of the ValuJet and TWA Flight 800 tragedies, Airframe seems far more rewarding as a layperson’s guide to the mazy economics and politics of air travel than it does as a work of fiction. B