By Nelson DeMille
Warner. 488 pp. $26.95
In "Night Fall" Nelson DeMille takes a close look at the explosion of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island on July 17, 1996, and sees not the mechanical failure that became the official explanation of the tragedy but a government conspiracy to cover up a missile attack. To tell his controversial story, DeMille brings back John Corey, the NYPD homicide detective featured in two of his earlier novels. Retired on medical disability after being shot by a terrorist, Corey has become a contract employee for a federal anti-terrorism task force in New York. He works there with his wife, Kate Mayfield, an FBI lawyer, whose doubts about the official version of the crash spur him to action despite a high-level coverup.
The novel opens on the evening of the crash. A man and a woman, affluent and in their thirties, each married to another, drive to a deserted Long Island beach. They take with them wine, a blanket and her video camera, and proceed to take off their clothes and put on a show. At about 8:30, cavorting on the sand, they are surprised to see something "rising off the water . . . a streak of incandescent reddish orange fire." A moment later, "It seemed to zigzag, then turn." Then they see a huge fireball and burning pieces of an airplane falling into the sea. The couple flees, only to find that the camera has captured an apparent missile shooting up from the ocean. The man insists that they must destroy the tape, lest their affair be exposed. But they have left behind a wineglass with fingerprints on it and the camera's lens cap to hint at their filming, enough to ensure that investigators will pursue them. This couple is entirely fictional, but their secret becomes central to DeMille's story.
We move ahead five years, to July 17, 2001. The investigation into the crash is long closed, but Kate Mayfield has become close to some of the families of its 230 victims, and she asks her husband to come with her to the annual beachside memorial service. There a senior FBI agent warns Corey that he and Kate will endanger their jobs if they question the official version of the crash. Corey being a surly sort, the warning ensures that he will pursue the case. Kate admits that she is part of a hush-hush group of FBI agents who question the official explanation that a frayed electrical wire caused a spark that ignited a gas tank.
Kate arranges for Corey to talk with a Navy pilot who flew 115 combat missions over North Vietnam. This man was in his sailboat the evening of the disaster and saw a streak of light rising into the sky toward Flight 800. He knows from experience exactly what a surface-to-air missile looks like, and he has not the slightest doubt that was what he saw and that it brought down the plane. There were, as DeMille often reminds us, more than 200 witnesses who described seeing that streak of light, only to find their accounts dismissed by the government. Kate also takes her husband for a visit to a naval station where they view the reconstructed Boeing 747, the result of an unprecedented salvage effort that brought up more than 70,000 pounds of metal and plastic, more than a million pieces, from a hundred feet of water. Then Kate produces an engineer who is just as sure there was no missile as the Navy pilot is sure there was one. There is lengthy discussion of whether the evidence supports the possibility of a missile. Corey forces the expert to admit that "the only evidence of the official cause of the crash is the lack of evidence of anything else."
Corey keeps digging and is repeatedly warned off. The villains are mostly CIA agents, and the hostility between the CIA and FBI is a recurring theme. The CIA, DeMille reports, made a video animation claiming that the witnesses who thought they saw a missile really saw the reflection of burning fuel falling toward the ocean. The witnesses say that is absurd, as do some at the FBI. There is also talk of radar evidence of a never-identified speedboat fleeing the scene and of U.S. war games in the area that night. Having presented the case for both a mechanical malfunction and a missile attack -- either by "friendly fire" or terrorists -- DeMille comes down hard on the side of a conspiracy. His novel, which explores the conflicting theories about the crash in far more detail than can be summarized here, will bring to a larger audience a debate that has raged on the Internet for years.
When Corey and his wife persist in asking questions, both are sent abroad to cool off. He returns home in early September -- the alert reader will note that Sept. 11 is looming -- and stubbornly resumes his investigation. Through brilliant detective work (or far-fetched plotting, depending on how you look at it), he finds the errant wife of the opening scene and obtains conclusive evidence of a missile attack. At that point, Corey is trying to get the evidence to honest government officials (if such can be found) before the conspirators eliminate him and it for good.
"Night Fall" reminds me of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" in that it is a triumph of substance over style. Its writing is pedestrian, the wise guy Corey is one of the most obnoxious characters in memory, and there are some absurd scenes when he runs unnecessary risks -- attacks a man with a gun and the like. Moreover, DeMille does not resolve his story but leaves us waiting for a sequel.
Still, "Night Fall" seems to be based on a hard core of fact that is both fascinating and important. In an author's note, DeMille stress that the novel draws on published accounts plus interviews with investigators and eyewitnesses to the crash. He says he has "tried to represent all sides of this controversy" but adds that he has taken "dramatic liberties and literary license" when there is "conflicting evidence." The reader doesn't know exactly what that means with regard to specific allegations. As a young man, DeMille was an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, and he has been a best-selling novelist for 25 years. Personally, I think he wrote this novel not just to make a buck, but rather because he's deeply troubled by the questions surrounding the fate of Flight 800. But there will certainly be those who will challenge his embrace of conspiracy theories. Given the government's vast power to create its own reality, the questions he raises and whatever controversy he creates strike me as all to the good.