Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. It’s always interesting to see which novels ‘catch fire’ and remain popular for a long time, and which don’t. Interestingly, it’s not always a book’s quality that determines whether it stays on best-seller lists. To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, one of only a few crime-fictional standalones Graham wrote.
As the story begins, Professor Jacob ‘Jake’ Landau is getting ready to board a morning flight from Boston to New York. With him is his friend and attorney, Martin Ross. Ross has been handling the details of Landau’s divorce from his ex-wife, Kitty, and the two are exhausted from the process.
Shortly before the flight takes off, a man steals a suitcase belonging to one of the passengers. He tries to escape the airport, but he’s shot and killed by police. The flight ends up taking off, though, and before long, approaches New York. Then, suddenly, a bomb goes off. Six people are killed, including Ross. Landau is injured, but survives.
Landau knows he’s not a police detective; but, since a flight he was on was attacked, he wants to know why and by whom. At first, he doesn’t get very far. The airline officials Landau contacts do almost nothing to help, only giving carefully-scripted, noncommittal answers. That’s not enough to satisfy Landau, and he starts looking more deeply for the truth.
He gets help from Samuel Schwann, a reporter from the New York Pennon. That magazine has a style,
‘…like that of Grade Z Fiction.’
But Landau has to start somewhere. So, he grants Schwann an interview, and the two start to help each other.
In the meantime, the police believe they know the truth about the bombing. It comes out that the man who planted the bomb – a man named Varga – was also the man who stole the suitcase before the flight took off. So, as far as the authorities go, there’s no more need for investigation. They got their man and he’s dead. And they don’t appreciate Landau’s insistence that there was more to this than one crazed bomber.
What’s more, a dangerous criminal group has gotten wind of Landau’s interest in the bombing, and they’re not any happier than the police are. Soon enough, Landau finds himself their target. If he’s going to stay alive, he’s going to get to the truth before he becomes a victim. Finally, and after two more deaths, Landau finds out why the plane was attacked, and why his friend was killed.
This novel was published in 1970, so readers get a look at what air travel was like at that time. In today’s world of very tight security and other airline realities, it would be hard to imagine some of the events that happen. But the sequence is more realistic within the context of the time it was written.
We also see the times reflected in the ways in which Landau goes about trying to find out who killed his friend and the other victims on the plane. This novel takes place in the days before the Internet, social media and easy access to computers. So Landau does his share of telephoning, newspaper checks, and so on.
This is a crime novel in the sense that there are murders, there’s an investigation, and so on. But it’s also got a touch of the thriller. There’s the ‘everyman drawn into something big’ plot line. There’s also the danger and suspense as Landau goes up against a crime syndicate. And there are several characters who don’t turn out to be as they seem. I can say without spoiling the story that there’s also a very tense and dramatic showdown at New York’s Grand Central Station.
The story is told in third person, past tense, mostly from Landau’s point of view. So, we learn quite a bit about him. He lives alone since his divorce, and has been trying to put his life back together. He does his share of introspection, but he doesn’t wallow. He has his share of faults, and he makes mistakes. But he’s bright, and he is committed getting some sort of justice for his friend.
This isn’t a whodunit sort of crime novel, where the sleuth finally unmasks the villain late in the story. In fact, it doesn’t take a very long time for Landau to establish that the bombing and the deaths are the work of a drugs-trafficking crime syndicate. The suspense comes, instead, as he works out how this group is connected with the passengers, and why they would have targeted that particular flight. There’s also suspense as Landau tries to stay one step ahead of the people who have targeted him. Each reader has a different view of what counts as ‘too much’ suspension of disbelief, but readers who dislike that aspect of some thrillers will notice that there’s a bit of it here.
Something in the Air is a crime novel with touches of the thriller, that takes place mostly in New York and Boston, and offers readers a look at life in 1970, especially when it comes to air travel. It features an ‘everyman’ thrust into a dangerous situation, and gets much of its suspense from the ‘cat and mouse game’ between the sleuth and the crime syndicate that’s marked him. But what’s your view? Have you read Something in the Air? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 17 April/Tuesday, 18 April – A Jarful of Angels – Babs Horton
Monday, 24 April/Tuesday, 25 April – Wife of the Gods – Kwei Quartey
Monday, 1 May/Tuesday, 2 May – Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley