Publication date: 03/05/2012
Bob Winrush used to fly passengers, then worked for years as a 'freight dog',
Now working as a private pilot for an Emirate prince in Dubai, he finds that
But back in the world of smuggled AK-47s and heroin, the stakes are rising.
I never set out to write a thriller; it was going to be a broody, atmospheric and poetic novel about a man in retreat on a Hebridean island. But the back-story took over: why was he there? That was more interesting. So I decided to work on suspense and excitement, helped by the character of the hero himself – very far removed from that of his author.
D.J. Taylor: May 4th 2012
The opening stretch of Adam Thorpe's 12th work of fiction sends several literary ghosts scampering out from their hidey-holes. One is Thorpe's own debut, Ulverton (1992), to the fictitious Wessex village of whose title the hero of this book periodically returns. There the resemblances end, for Flight,sharply written and full of the most beguiling sky-surfer jargon ("boredom tube" for long-haul flight), is a study in realignment, retribution and regret.
A well-preserved and proudly uxurious family man – until the moment he catches his wife having tantric sex with her masseur – Bob Winrush has, by his own admission, done certain things he deplores during his busy career as a "freight dog". They include the transportation of cluster bombs, napalm canisters and assorted tiger parts for the oriental market. The dodgiest job of all, alas, now come back to haunt him, was one he walked out of halfway through: a commission to fly arms to the Taliban, with a drugs package apparently booked for the flight home.
All this took place two years ago. Coming back to his bolt hole in Dubai, Winrush discovers that someone has begun to piece these threads together. Summary sacking from the current day job is followed by a burgled apartment and a visit from three burly frighteners who stop narrowly short of pitching him over the balcony. Meanwhile, the lefty Israeli journalist to whom he has granted an interview winds up dead outside a Polish armaments factory. Back home in England, scarcely a week passes without another person connected with the flight handing in his boarding pass. A conference with the only other survivor, flight engineer McAllister – himself about to skedaddle to the safety of the Virgin Islands – yields up an invitation to stay in the latter's croft on the remote Scottish island of Scourlay.
If the first half of Flight is taken up with moving about, often at high speed (Winrush manages to get out of his sabotaged car just before it explodes), the second is about staying put. Kitted out with a new identity and a great deal of weather-resistant clothing, Bob reckons to pass himself off as a vacationing birdwatcher. Cover blown by the inquisitive locals, three sources of love interest (café owner, woman next door and skinny-dipping conservationist) promisingly in view, he settles down to some paranoiac brooding, revolver permanently to hand, eyes primed for a stir of movement on the surrounding hills. While the brooding turns up a hint that the suspiciously well-heeled McAllister may have more to do with the affair than he lets on, the eventual visitation takes a wholly unexpected shape.
There never was a novel about an airline pilot yet in which the figurative language didn't bear some relation to its hero's professional life. Sure enough, Thorpe can't resist the temptation to have Bob declare that "I was fitted with four engines. Marriage, home, job, kids. I've lost three. I'm gliding on one," or have him feeling "like an obsolescent aircraft left out in all weathers", when it is the author doing the feeling rather than his creation. In mitigation, Bob manages to display both a life of his own and a nice line in wisecracking shrewdness. The novel's most convincing exchanges – Bob bantering with McAllister, or prising information out of his disapproving activist son – grow out of psychological tension, half-jokey compromises reached by people who dare not reveal all they know.
As for the overall effect, an enterprising blurb-writer has marked this down as "a page-turning thriller and a masterful work of literary fiction". Harmonising these two genres was never going to be easy, and a fair amount of the proceedings can't quite disguise the fact that Thorpe is more interested in his characters' inner lives than bombs going off. But the eerily anonymous Dubai apartment block and the rain-swept Scourlay heather are beautifully evoked, and confirm a long-held impression that Thorpe is one of the most underrated writers on the planet.
Peter Carty: May 5th 2012
Freight dogs are pilots who take pride in their willingness to fly anything anywhere. Except that, one day in Istanbul, Bob Winrush discovers that his cargo is a consignment of arms destined for the Taliban, and walks off the job.
This principled stand has repercussions. The least is the loss of his subsequent employment - flying a Middle Eastern sheikh around in a customised DC-10, sauna and all. Then Winrush is attacked by thugs and the question arises of whether the arms were paid for with heroin. Soon he realises that the other crew members from the Taliban flight are being killed, one by one.
Winrush's interior world revolves around his pilot's training. He's conditioned to calibrate risk and plan strategy in the direst of circumstances, and never to lose control. It is a mindset that comes in useful off the flight deck, not least in the masterly opening scene when he catches his wife in flagrante with a masseur. A pilot's reaction time is fast; seconds slow down while details are processed: "The room was heady with lavender oil: Olivia's neck, shoulders and clavicles were glossed, as was her open lower lip and the tongue resting on it. There was a ball of tissue, grey with moisture, by the man's shin."
Part of this novel's narrative is set in Dubai. Adam Thorpe captures its soulless post-modernism perfectly. With an Israeli journalist on his trail, and after escaping what might have been a car bomb, Winrush elects to lie low. Most of the second half takes place in the Outer Hebrides, and Thorpe's evocation of the wilderness is impressive.
Thorpe has obviously carried out his research minutely. It comes as no surprise to learn that several close relatives have worked in aviation and that he consulted a couple of UN arms experts.
...Flight is full of fine writing, with a compelling tale that will keep readers securely fastened into their seats.
Allan Massie: April 28th 2012
Adam Thorpe’s last novel, Hodd, a grim anti-Romantic revisionary version of the Robin Hood legends, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott historical novel prize. It was brilliantly written, but difficult, not immediately “accessible” – to employ last year’s Man Booker judges’ term of approval.
Flight could scarcely be more different. It is a gripping thriller from its first sentence: “If you’re having an affair with a freight dog’s wife, you should check the world’s weather.” A freight dog is a pilot who ferries cargo, sometimes of dubious origin, to destinations that may be equally dubious, usually with no questions asked. This is what Bob Winrush does, and when he returns unexpectedly early from one such trip, he finds his wife in bed with another man, and his world begins to crumble.
Involved in a messy and painful divorce, he is soon dismissed by the rich Sheikh whose private plane – a converted DC10 with on-board sauna and jacuzzi – he has been flying. The Sheikh has got word of an incident in Bob’s past – a more than usually dubious deal he walked away from – and is quick to disembarrass himself of an employee who is evidently damaged goods. It is in Dubai that Bob is dismissed and before he can leave to return to England, he finds his past catching up with him frighteningly quickly...
Having a threatened man go into hiding from his enemies is a classic thriller device – think of Buchan’s last Hannay novel, The Island of Sheep, or Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. But in the world of the internet and mobile phones there is no hiding-place that is now sufficiently remote – unless you eschew all communication with the outer world; and this is something Bob can’t, for good reasons, bring himself to do. The more he learns, the keener his anxiety, and the more likely it is that his past will catch up with him even here.
The novel is written with zest and great authority, the flying passages owing something to Thorpe’s own family background (his father worked for Pan Am for 35 years). He brings off the difficult change of gear successfully, and his flawed hero is both convincing and likeable. Other characters are more fully fleshed out than is usual in thrillers. The plot is elaborate, at times far-fetched, but never strains the bounds of credibility too far.
When novelists with a high literary reputation, such as Thorpe has enjoyed since his first novel Ulverton was published, set out to write a thriller, they too often give the impression that their tongue has strayed into their cheek, that they feel superior to their material. There is no such suggestion here. Thorpe is a craftsman as well as an artist, and the book is well put together, with respect for the genre. Like William Boyd, Thorpe is a thorough professional. Thorpe convincingly portrays a world in which the means of communication have shrunk the world and made privacy hard to secure.
Ian Thomson: May 17th 2012
The novel is, among other things, a meditation on the impossibility of love in a world governed by disappointment. In a series of flashbacks, we learn of Winrush’s excruciatingly awful marriage to ex-stewardess Olivia, who runs a clothes shop in Worcester called Holier Than Thou (one can just see it). As the couple bicker their way towards divorce, Olivia carries on with a “therapeutic bilingual masseur” from Montreal called Luke. Nice. If Flight takes a while to get airborne, it soon thrusts into brilliance, and becomes a zingy page-turner...
Kate Saunders: May 3rd 2012
This is a breakneck, knuckle-whitening thriller, written with absolute brilliance — pooh to the Booker judges if this is not on the shortlist...
Patrick Skene Catling: May 2012
[Flight is] enthrallingly nerve-wracking in the Hitchcock mode: realism with intimations of fatal disaster...
[It] can be appreciated simultaneously on three levels: as an almost continually tense narrative interspersed with unpredictable, entrails-knotting incidents; as an increasingly sympathetic revelation of an intelligent, complex character; and as a travelogue of extreme contrasts, all depicted in stylish prose of marvellous originality. Glints of sardonic wit do not vitiate the overall sense of danger, the sort of danger that a reader in safety can thoroughly enjoy.
Times Literary Supplement
Malcolm Forbes: August 10, 2012
The protagonist of Adam Thorpe’s exhilarating tenth novel, Flight, has clocked up significant air miles,like his creator. Thorpe – born in Paris, brought up in Beirut, Calcutta, Cameroon and the south of England, and now resident in France again – endows his frequent-flyer “freight dog”, pilot Bob Winrush, with an impressive globetrotting history. This is a man who has done Congo cargo runs, landed on bush airstrips, even taken part in one “North Korean shindig”; over the years, his hold has contained atomic equipment, landmines and renegade army personnel. Bob’s real troubles, however, begin closer to home when one day he touches down early and returns to find his wife having tantric sex with her masseur. He makes a new start for himself in Dubai, swapping goods consignments for passengers as a private pilot for an Emirate sheikh. But his life takes a further, deeper, nose-dive when one of those dubious flights from his past is recalled and haunts him. Soon this pilot who was always told to look the other way is watching his back.
Sharansky, a dogged Israeli campaign journalist, tracks Bob down with details of a past job involving arms to the Taliban and a payload of heroin on the return leg. Bob explains that he refused this “op”. Despite “ducking in and out of African hotspots”, he still upholds certain principles: medical supplies may mingle with military matériel but drugs are a no-go. But soon, anyone connected with this flight is on a hit-list. Sharansky is killed outside a Polish munitions factory, and then one by one, like “ten green bottles”, the former flight-crew are bumped off. Bob starts running, first seeking sanctuary in England, then, after a burglary and bomb attempt on his car, fleeing north of the border to a Hebridean hideaway.
By the time we get to Scotland, it is as if we have begun a new novel, or rather another one has been grafted on. Bob, now more vigilant, and posing as a beardy birdwatcher, keeps his head down and his sweaty hand on his Makarov. The wind-ravaged island with its superstitious, “weather-singed” locals provides a perfect antidote to the gaudy glitter of Dubai and generic English suburbia, and Thorpe finds ample opportunity to crank up the tension as Bob shrinks from every new face and jumps at every creak. There is a short, wonderful scene, all compressed rage and veiled threats, in which he is taken out in a dinghy towards “mid-ocean wastes” by a man who suspects him of sleeping with his wife; and pervading the whole section is Bob’s niggling fear that his trusty flight engineer, Al, one of two remaining green bottles, may well have sold him out to the enemy.
Bob is an unconvincing twitcher (“amateur birders aren’t usually beefcakes with a gift for one-liners”) but his wisecracks keep him amiable and laughing in the face of adversity: warned that if he blabs he will be dead by Monday, he tells Al “They don’t work weekends, apparently”. Thorpe also adorns his narrative with effective flight metaphors. Some relate to Bob’s world (Dubai’s lights resemble “a cockpit’s nighttime avionics”), others to Bob himself (his hair is “flight-deck short”, he tries to get his heart back to “boring old cruising speed”, and he feels he was “fitted with four engines. Marriage, home, job, kids. I’ve lost three. I’m gliding on one, now”). He protests that he is small fry, a “flying truck driver”, which in turn leads to musings on his contribution to his failed marriage. Thorpe deftly enlarges his point into a theme – “How do you know when you matter to someone?” – and in doing so instils Bob’s doleful meditations with considerable pathos.
Flight has echoes of previous Thorpe outings. Bob pops up in [the eponymous village from] Ulverton (1992), Thorpe’s debut novel, and his sorties in and out of the Central African Republic reveal darker truths than those on display in Pieces of Light (1998). The latter warned that “being good in Africa was not the same as being good in England”, and in Flight Thorpe shows us a man trying to be good in both places and paying the price for his efforts. “Plenty stuff you don’t talk about in Cargo World”, Bob says. Luckily for us, he talks about it, after all, and its toxic secrets and contaminated hero help to make this novel Adam Thorpe’s finest to date.