Reviewed by Rod McLary
The opening line to this debut novel by T.J. Newman is almost guaranteed to grab the attention of the reader: ‘When the shoe dropped into her lap the foot was still in it’ . Fortunately, as it turns out, the hero of Falling is having a nightmare. The word ‘hero’ – not often used these days – is perfectly appropriate for the chief protagonist of this thriller as readers will soon discover as they race through the novel to see what will happen on the next page – and the pages after that.
Captain Bill Hoffman is a pilot with Coastal Airways and, leaving his wife Carrie, ten-year-old son Scott and ten-month-old daughter Elise at home, heads off one morning to fly Flight 416 from Los Angeles to New York. As Bill undertakes the pre-flight checks on the plane, Sam, a repairman from CalCom, arrives at Bill’s home as pre-arranged to repair the internet connection. So far, so good.
Then the family’s world falls apart. Minutes after take-off, Bill receives a video call from Sam who is really a terrorist who has wired himself and Bill’s and Carrie’s home with explosives. Sam’s one demand is – Bill must either crash the plane into a target yet to be disclosed or his family will be killed. Informing anyone else – his co-pilot, the flight crew, the authorities, anyone – will immediately cause the deaths of his family. Rather than falling for the either-or fallacy [that there are only ever two choices available], Bill rejects both and repeatedly says to Sam: ‘I’m not going to crash this plane and you’re not going to kill my family’ .
The circumstances which have led Sam to make his demand and how and why Bill was chosen as the person to meet the demand are gradually revealed as the novel unfolds. As is de rigueur for thrillers, not everyone in high positions of trust is worthy of that trust as Bill soon learns. Also, Sam’s backstory is a tragic one which in the eyes of some readers may explain his behaviour. His attitude towards his hostages – Carrie, Scott and Elise – reveals him to be a man of many parts and one who perhaps should not be defined by only his acts of terrorism. Sam is proof of the adage ‘just because we do bad things doesn’t mean we are bad people’. Was this the author’s intention? Yes – most likely.
The author juxtaposes the events on the ground with those in the air. In both arenas, there is tension and suspense and to link the two – apart from Bill receiving threats in the air from Sam on the ground – there is an unexpected connection between an FBI agent and one of the flight crew. The communication between the agent and the flight attendant is used strategically by the author to keep everyone – including the reader – apprised of the unfolding events in real time.
There is at times a perhaps too heavy reliance on unexpected events to maintain the narrative flow which creates a somewhat stop-start momentum to the story. It seems that ‘life is just one damned thing after another’.
A few of the characters are stock characters without very much depth or breadth. There is a belligerent passenger demanding to be allowed into the cockpit; a mother of a young baby who confronts the crew with claims that her child will be traumatised for life by their actions; an FBI agent threatened with suspension for failure to follow orders; and a young inexperienced flight attendant who rises to the occasion when required. The most finely drawn character is Sam and he draws some sympathy even though his actions result in tragedy.
Falling is on balance a gripping story and one which it may not be wise to read while waiting to board a plane, boarding a plane or flying in a plane. It is best read in the safety of your own home. While there are some flaws, it is a sound debut novel by an author who knows from experience exactly what does happen and may happen on a plane. The on-board sequences resonate with verisimilitude and accuracy.
T.J. Newman is a former bookseller turned flight attendant who worked for Virgin America and Alaska Airlines from 2011 to 2021. She lives in Phoenix Arizona.
by T.J. Newman
Simon and Schuster
ISBN 978 17611 0268 4