Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: MAYDAY by Thomas H. Block

Now I know for a fact I was still in school when I first read this, because I remember picking it up from my local WHSmith or Woolworths (remember Woolworths?) shortly after it came out, and since this NEL paperback was released in 1981 that would have made me about 14 or 15 at the time. And I also know my best friend at school, Tony, who also shared my love of thriller novels and especially loved anything with planes, bought a copy too so we could read it at the same time. Usually while we were at school. Morning assembly was best. Man, those things were dull and they went on forever, but it was amazing how the minutes flew by when you had a good book to dip into when the teachers weren't looking. And we were both fast readers, too, so invariably one of us would tap the other on the shoulder and casually ask, 'Hey, have you got to page 145 where such and such happens? No? Oh, just you wait, it's so cool.' Oh yes, the art of one-upmanship is mastered at a very early age.

Oddly enough, I'm pretty sure I only read MAYDAY that one time. I don't know why exactly. If I had to guess, it would be because there were so many other books waiting to be read next. That's not to say I wasn't impressed with MAYDAY, however. On the contrary, I was totally gripped from the first page to the last. In fact, I thought that Daily Express blurb on the cover wasn't going far enough. At the wise age of 14, I just thought this wasn't just the best disaster novel ever, but the best novel ever.

Blame it on the innocent enthusiasm of youth.

But in reading the book again in preparation for this post, I was pleased to discover my memory (which is spotty at the best of times) hadn't been playing tricks on me. Okay, okay, it's hardly the best book ever. It's not even close. In fact, it might not even be the best disaster book I've ever read. But thirty years on it still had me breathlessly turning the pages into the early hours, and that's really all I can ask of any thriller. And I notice it's still in print, too, so it would seem I'm not the only person who feels that way.

The plot, as with most disaster scenarios, is simplicity itself. In this case it begins 60,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean where a state-of-the-art supersonic passenger jet (think a cross between the Concorde and a 747), is heading for Tokyo with a full load of 300 passengers. Unfortunately, it turns out that the US Navy are testing an experimental smart-missile in that very area at the exact same time. What are the chances, eh? And naturally, the missile's internal computer chooses that moment to have a breakdown and decide that the jet would make a far better target than the drone it was originally programmed for.

So, of course, the missile proceeds to strike the new target dead centre, passing straight through the hull like a bullet through a frankfurter. The jet immediately loses cabin pressure and a good percentage of the passengers are swept out the two gaping holes and into subspace. Fortunately, the auto-pilot does its job and takes the jet down to 11,000 feet where the air's breathable. Unfortunately, it's all a little too late, as most of the remaining passengers are either dead or permanently brain-damaged as a result of the decompression and oxygen deprivation. The only exceptions are the five people who were in pressure-stabilized areas (ie. toilets) at the time and are thus still in possession of all their faculties.

And they must now find a way to somehow land the damaged plane while fending off not only hordes of braindead passengers, but the Navy - who want to cover up the accident for obvious reasons - and also the airline itself - who, along with the insurance company, would quickly go bankrupt from all the prospective injury claims if the plane were to actually land.

So, no pressure then.

It's like the author's thought to himself, 'Hmm, what's the worst thing that could possibly happen?' and then decided to ramp everything up to the power of ten. Which is exactly what a thriller writer should be doing in a story like this. Naturally, the pilots in the cockpit are taken out of the equation straight away, along with the radios, which are damaged beyond repair. Added to which, the plane's also rapidly running out of fuel. The Navy commander responsible for the screw-up also turns out to be a complete psychopath, willing to do whatever's necessary to cover up the whole mess, including blowing up the rest of the plane and sinking the evidence in the Pacific. And then we have the chairman of the airline back in San Francisco, who decides all his problems will immediately vanish if the plane never returns.

And as if that isn't enough, you've also got the mobs of brain-damaged passengers ('Zombies On A Plane'?) wandering around the compartments looking for trouble, and thus making life even more difficult for the five remaining 'normal' passengers (consisting of John Berry, a salesman and 'weekend' pilot, two stewardesses - Sharon Crandall and Barbara Yoshiro, a 12-year-old girl named Linda, and an editor, Howard Stein, whose wife and two daughters have just devolved into halfwits).

Now there are a lot of characters in the narrative, both on the ground and off, but Block does a pretty good job of juggling all the strands so the reader never gets lost at any time. Inevitably, some end up as little more than sketch drawings rather than fully fleshed-out people, but the two main survivors, Berry and Crandall, make an interesting pair and display honest (rather than 'Hollywood') emotions throughout the crisis so that the reader can really get behind them every step of the way. And then there's Lt. Peter Matos, the Navy pilot who made the error that caused all this trouble. A career soldier who suddenly realizes his commander is certifiable, on the one hand he's unable to completely break rank and do the right thing, but neither is he prepared to sell his soul to the devil. At least not completely. Despite being only a minor player in the story, his journey turns out to be one of the narrative's more engrossing sub-plots.

But let's hear it for the bad guys, who collectively make the book far more memorable than it might otherwise have been. They really are a gallery of mad bastards. Sorry, but there it is. Are they realistic? Well, not really. But are they entertaining to read? Oh, most definitely. First, you've got the Navy commander, Sloan, who just gets nuttier and nuttier as the book progresses. You do wonder if he's ever had to deal with an emergency situation before, because as soon as this one gets underway he just loses it entirely. Everything, and I mean everything, suddenly boils down to how he can save his career. And it doesn't matter how many people have to die - including his own men - in order for that to be achieved.

Then there are the two maniacs on the ground: Johnson, the chairman of the airline itself, and Metz, an insurance representative there to cover his firm's ass. They're just as bad as Sloan, maybe even worse, as they can't even use the old standby 'national security' as an excuse for their behaviour. All they care about are their profit margins. But they're also so over-the-top that it's hard not to rejoice in their evilness. I like to think Block knew full well he was pushing the bounds of reality in this one, so he just went for broke with these two. I mean, it can't be a coincidence that they happen to get some of the best (ie. funniest) lines in the book. There's this, for example:

       Metz slumped forward in his chair. 'Good God! Why didn't you tell me all this?'
       'Why? Because you have no real balls. You were all for this as long as you thought I could come up with a simple technical solution to the problem of putting the Straton in the ocean. If you knew all the problems involved, you would have run off to your group therapy or wherever it is that fucked-up insurance kids go.'
       Metz stood slowly. 'It's more than our careers now. If -"
       'Right. It's our lives against theirs. If they land we go up for twenty to life. That might affect our promotions.'

Or this, when Johnson creates a diversion to allow Metz to swipe some incriminating communications from a fax machine:

       Johnson stood and walked towards the door. 'Go on, Wayne. One quick motion from the machine to your pocket. Everybody is looking at me now.' He put his hand on the door knob. 'Go.'
       Metz ripped the messages off and stuffed them into his trousers pocket.
       Johnson pretended to change his mind and walked away from the door. He sat back down at the counter. 'Very good. In case of imminent capture, eat them.'
       Metz walked up to Johnson. 'I'm not sure I like your sense of humour any more.'
       Johnson shrugged. 'I'm not sure I like your lack of one. First sign of mental disease - lack of humour. Inability to see the funny side of things.'

But just in case you feel I'm passing over the actual thriller elements of the book, let me assure you that MAYDAY is a genuine rollercoaster ride from start to finish. Block is a fine storyteller and expertly crafts the book so that the reader is never more than five or six pages away from another cliffhanger. And he also proves to be a dab hand at describing intense action scenes, too. Which isn't as easy as it looks, believe me. A case in point is the initial collision caused by the stray missile, which takes up almost ten pages, and Block leaves little to the imagination as he describes the horror. The reader is given gruesome accounts of adults and children being pulverised or torn apart by debris, while others are simply swept screaming out into subspace to die of asphyxiation. Often still strapped to their seats.

And that's all within the first fifty pages, so you can imagine what the rest of the book's like.

But for those of you who wish to experience it for yourself, it's worth noting that the novel's had a few changes made to it since it's original publication. For a start, it's now listed as having been written by 'Nelson DeMille and Thomas Block,' which is a little confusing. Because I've read a few of DeMille's novels and it sure doesn't sound like his voice. Not only that, but in my original copy (pic above) it's copyrighted solely to Thomas H. Block, and after dedicating the book to his wife, Block also adds 'I wish to thank Nelson DeMille for his invaluable editorial assistance, Dr Jack Fallia for his invaluable help, and a gallery of other friends...'

But I also know that the book has been extensively updated since its original publication, so maybe DeMille had a lot more input into that part of it. I haven't read the newer version so I don't really know - although I'm sure commercial considerations had a part to play when deciding whose name went on the cover. Maybe those who've read the newer version can let me know what they think in the comments section. I'd be interested to know what changes were made.

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