The book begins with a very traumatic event. A private plane crashes into the ocean with only two survivors. One is a middle aged artist, Scott Burroughs, who paints disasters like the one that he has just been involved in, and the other is JJ, a 4 year old child rescued by him, against all odds, since he had to swim with a severely injured shoulder for miles with the child on his back. Burroughs was inspired to become a swimmer, when he was just 6 years old, when he watched Jack LaLanne swim from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf, pulling a boat along with him. JJ was the son of the big news executive with the private plane, David Bateman, President of a right-leaning cable news station called ALC NEWS. Their story alone would have made an interesting novel, but when you add to that, the mystery of why the plane went into the ocean en route to Manhattan from Martha’s Vineyard, the playground of the rich, just minutes from its destination, you have an even more compelling book.
This private plane was ferrying the Batemans, David, Maggie, Rachel and JJ, back to their townhouse in Manhattan from their home in Martha’s Vineyard. Several others had been invited along to share their flight home. One passenger, Ben Kipling, was a man about to be indicted as a result of an investigation by the SEC. He was on board with his wife Sarah. There was also an Israeli, Gil Baruch, who was the security guard protecting the Bateman family. Then there was James Melody, the pilot, Charlie Busch, the copilot, related to a Texas Senator, and Emma Lightner, the flight attendant. With several high profile passengers on board, a full scale investigation was launched into the possible causes of the crash. Was it terrorism, an assassination attempt on the life of Bateman inspired by conflicts between Liberal and Conservative networks, an effort to silence Kipling about his dealings, after his arrest, pilot error, or something completely different?
The story works backwards and explores the lives of the passengers and their possible motives for bringing down the plane. The investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board is a thorough and polite African-American, Ben Franklin. Working with him is his opposite, O’Brien, an abrupt Special Agent with the FBI. He is arrogant and insulting in his approach, more of a steamroller, often jumping to unfound conclusions and actions rather than someone looking carefully at the facts.
Bill Cunningham, popular “talking head” on ALC NEWS, was portrayed as a man creating the story with insinuations which were nothing more than hearsay and innuendo for his own moment in the spotlight, rather than covering it with the actual facts. He cared nothing about the reputation of those he smeared with his suggestive comments, but sought to create advancement opportunities for himself. FBI Special Agent O’Brien was portrayed as a man who did not think critically, but who was on the rise with a promising future. He was pompous and a bully, simply looking for a scapegoat to hang the crash on so he, too, could further his own career. Ben Kipling was portrayed as a very wealthy man with a compromised moral compass who laundered foreign money illegally. The evil-doers in the book were basically 1-rich capitalists like blueblood lawyer Barney Culpepper and heiress Layla Mueller, along with those accused of making money fraudulently like Ben Kipling, and even Bill Cunningham who commits crimes to secretly obtain information on people, each taking advantage of the system in his/her own way, 2-the conservative media industry led by David Bateman, and 3-the heavy-handed law enforcement officers in the FBI.
As the mystery unravels, the author definitely points a judgmental finger at the news media and law enforcement for the way they rushed to judgment. He also portrayed those with less money than the passengers on the plane in a more sympathetic way, although he also used one character, Doug, the husband of Maggie’s sister, Jenny, as a villain, because of his obvious greed concerning the 100 million dollar inheritance that came along with the guardianship of JJ, rather than exhibiting compassion about the tremendous loss faced by the child. He railed against David Bateman whom he called Maggie’s Republican sugar daddy.
I felt as if Capitalism was a character in the story that was not very admirable. In the same way, the conservative news and law enforcement were also portrayed almost as characters, in a very negative way. Overall, big business, Republicans and the FBI were the villains and those who were the drones, the worker bees, were more positively drawn. They always had back story excuses for their poor behavior, which was not their fault. Instead, their actions were blamed on others, a typical left wing viewpoint which promotes little responsibility for one’s own actions.
The author cleverly used the names of the characters to indicate his own left political leanings by drawing the copilot, named Charlie Busch, (eerily similar to the name of both Presidents Bush), as an abusive womanizer, a misfit with an unhappy childhood, brought up by his wealthy uncle who just happened to be Logan Birch, a long time Texas Senator. Of course, Birch will remind the reader of the name of the John Birch Society, a radical, far right group. Bill, of course will make the reader think of the Conservative cable news commentator, Bill O’Reilly, especially when they hear his boss was called Roger, as in the allusion to Roger Ailes, recently accused of sexual harassment. There are other coincidences the reader will discover like the similarities in the kidnapping of baby Rachel Bateman with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. One will also remember that Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, was involved in a cover-up of a wiretapping scandal in England, the same kind of wiretapping that Bill Cunningham conducted. The Kiplings potential future in-laws were Republicans with a child with Down Syndrome, reminding the reader about the abortion issue.
I found the message a bit one-sided since it was based on the conservative cable news station which appeared to be exercising manipulative and dishonest approaches to the news.
Those characters who wanted money were evil; those who wanted organic markets and less out of life were saints. It seemed to me that Hawley has taken bits and pieces of real life and married them to the fictional portion of the novel to present his personal, political views along with the story. Many of the characters who lacked a moral compass and were governed by personal greed would easily be identifiable with the political right, while those who were kinder and gentler were easily placed on the political left.
Was the crash planned or was it the result of a mechanical or pilot error? Was it an accident or a deliberate act of murder? The author was able to cover the plane crash from each passenger’s perspective without really being very repetitive. The details of the investigation were thorough and realistic. The analysis of the disaster paintings were almost lyrical and were definitely thought provoking. The story about Jack LaLanne was very interesting and his message was inspiring. Absent the obviously biased political message, the book would have been a bit better, in my eyes. Still, it was a good read about the fragility of life.
The narrator was, as always, excellent. He captures the personality of each of the characters individually, making the real.