The destructive legacies of a terrorist hijacking and a secret history of “corruption in American Intelligence”: both are painstakingly pieced together in this grim literary thriller from the Australian-born author (Oyster, 1998, etc.).
The story’s action occurs in flashbacks to 1987, when an Air France flight to New York is seized by the group “Black Death” as a means to liberating jailed “Muslim freedom fighters,” with fatal consequences—and in a present time set 13 years later, when survivors and victims of the incident undertake to solve mysteries still surrounding it. Boston-area painting contractor Lowell Hawthorne, whose adulterous mother had perished when that plane exploded, is contacted by Georgetown University student Samantha Raleigh, who lost her parents in the same catastrophe and was furthermore one of 40 children on board released to safety by the terrorists. Samantha’s pursuit of the truth about Black Death (ostensibly her master’s thesis project), at first avoided and later abetted by Lowell, is juxtaposed against the experiences of people who did and did not board that plane—and complicated when Lowell acquires a collection of “coded journals” and videotapes left for him following the accidental death of his father Mather, a CIA “spook” who knew a great deal about the fatal flight, the origins and larger ambitions of Black Death, and the sinister involved figures code-named “Salamander” and “Sirocco.” The interlocking connections and revelations are quite cleverly made, and the imagery of plague (linked to epigraph quotations from Boccaccio, Camus, and Defoe) is ingeniously expressed by both the horror of “a politically necessary exercise that got out of hand” and the technique of chemical warfare, explicated with chilling factuality in Mather’s explosive journals. Several other surprises lie in wait, as the past bears in on, and threatens to devour, the present.
Strong stuff: an accomplished fusion of doomsday thriller and mordant morality play.