I’m getting ready for a trip next month to a conference. I’m especially excited about this trip because I’m going to get to meet some friends I’ve only ever ‘met’ virtually. But of course, this trip is going to involve air travel. The whole thing has gotten me thinking about air travel and the role it plays in most of our lives. Lots of people commute to work by air and even those of us who don’t are quite accustomed to getting on planes to get wherever we’re going. So it’s little wonder at all that we see a lot of air travel in crime fiction. Sometimes the flight is the central point of the novel; that makes sense because a flight brings together all sorts of disparate people and that can make for a terrific setting and plot. Sometimes the flight is a minor point. Even then it allows the author to move the sleuth around, explore characters’ personalities, add to the plot, and so on. And it’s realistic, since so many of us travel that way.
Air travel is a way of life in some areas. For instance in Alaska, it’s the main method of transportation into and out of many places. That’s what we see in Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series. In White Sky, Black Ice, Active, who’s an Alaska State Trooper, is investigating the supposed suicide of George Clinton, whose body is found outside a local bar in Chukchi. Some little clues suggest that Clinton didn’t kill himself though, and Active has been looking into the matter. Then Active gets a request from Clara Stone, a relation on his mother’s side of the family. She is worried because her husband Aaron hasn’t returned from a hunting trip to Katy Creek. At first, Active wonders whether there’s even any reason to worry since Stone wasn’t really specific about when he’d be back. But Clara insists, so Active arranges with a local pilot Cowboy Decker to fly him over the Katy Creek area. That’s when Active discovers Stone’s body – another supposed suicide. But neither Clinton nor Stone ‘fit’ the profile of the typical suicide (if there is such a thing), so Active is more convinced than ever that both men were murdered. Active turns out to be quite right. These two men were murdered, and their deaths are linked.
Getting from place to place in Alaska often involves planes that aren’t exactly luxurious, and Jones makes that clear in his series. So does Dana Stabenow in both her Kate Shugak series and her Liam Campbell series. In Fire and Ice, for instance, which is the first of the Liam Campbell series, Constable Liam Campbell has just been assigned to Newenham, a small town in the Alaska bush. He no sooner de-planes when he gets involved in his first local murder case. Professional pilot Bob DeCreft has been killed by a propeller. DeCreft was a seasoned pilot who didn’t take un-necessary risks, so he wouldn’t have been likely to make the kind of mistakes that led to his death. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to have any enemies, so it’s hard to identify a motive for murder. Soon it comes out that the plane was sabotaged. This case is complicated by the fact that the plane that killed DeCreft is owned by Campbell’s former lover Wyanet “Wy” Chouinard, a skilled bush pilot in her own right. But little by little, Campbell starts getting a little closer to the truth about the murder – or so he thinks. When his chief suspect is also killed, Campbell has to re-think his original theory. In the end though, he gets to the truth about the murders.
One of the more famous air-related murder mysteries is Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, is a well-known French moneylender. She is en route one day from Paris to London when she suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. Soon enough though, it’s established that she was poisoned. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers so Hercule Poirot, who was on the ill-fated flight, works with Chief Inspector James Japp to look among the other passengers and find out who the murderer is. The first part of this novel takes place on the plane, so as well as telling the story of the murder, the novel also depicts air travel at that time.
In William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is assigned to a very delicate case. Promising young actress Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya has been found dead – an apparent suicide. There are, however, small hints that suggest that she may have been murdered. So Korolev’s charge is to travel to Odessa, where Lenskaya was filming on location, and investigate very quietly. If the death was in fact suicide, then no more need to be done – there are certainly enough suicides during this time (pre-World War II Stalinist Russia). If the victim was murdered though, Korolev will have to find out who the killer is. Korolev prepares for his investigation and in the process, takes his first trip by air. This is a small plane too, and although the pilot says there’s nothing to worry about, that doesn’t exactly settle Korolev’s nerves. Things don’t get much better when each passenger is weighed. The total weight can’t exceed a given amount, so Korolev is concerned:
‘When all the passengers had been weighed and their names checked off, the younger pilot and the clerk examined the ledger and the latter flicked balls back and forth on an abacus. Their faces were grave and Korolev felt every one of his two hundred pounds, bag included.’
Despite his misgivings, Korolev and the other passengers have no real trouble getting to Odessa, and Korolev begins to look into the case. As it turns out, Lenskaya’s death was indeed murder, and the trail to the killer leads to some very high places.
Of course, plane travel can prove to be very useful in ways beyond the obvious. In Lindy Cameron’s Redback, for instance, we meet journalist Scott Dreher. He’s been doing some research on the use of war simulation games to recruit for the military, and his trail leads to Japan, where he wants to meet game developer Hiroyuki Kaga. On board a flight to Tokyo, Dreher happens to notice that the passenger sitting next to him has a copy of Global WarTek, one of the games Dreher’s been researching. He takes a look at the game and sees something that gives him an important clue that the military may not be the only ones using games for recruitment purposes. It turns out that Dreher’s instincts are right. This game is being used by a shadowy group of terrorists to recruit, initiate and give instructions to members. While Dreher is pursuing this story, the same terrorists are in the ‘line of sight’ of Team Redback, a crack Australian retrieval team that specialises in rescuing people from dangerous situations. Led by Commander Bryn Gideon, they’re called out to rescue delegates to a conference on a Pacific Island and pull off the operation very successfully. Then they learn about other incidents in other places in the world including a train that is blown up in France, an attack on a U.S. military base and two murders, including that of Hiroyuki Kaga. Little by little, Gideon and her team find the connections among these incidents and when they get the information Dreher has, they target the terrorists who are behind the events. And one of the key pieces of information that leads everyone to the terrorists comes from that on-board encounter Dreher has.
Air travel has become so common that most of the time, we just don’t think about it (unless of course one happens to be squeamish about it). But it’s an integral part of modern life, so it makes sense that it would also be woven into crime fiction. Now let’s see…which seats shall I choose? Aisle, I think…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, made most famous by Peter, Paul and Mary. I miss both John Denver and Mary Travers…