NIGHT FALL. By Nelson DeMille. Warner Books. 485 pages. $26.95.
There's always a danger when a fiction writer or movie director rips a story from the headlines and fleshes it out. . Oliver Stone's movie, JFK, about the John F. Kennedy assassination, which continues to feed countless conspiracy theories, comes to mind.
But this well-researched novel raises fictive questions that parallel the noisy counterclaims to official conclusions that are still arising more than eight years after TWA Flight 800, headed from New York to Paris, disintegrated midair shortly after takeoff. These include countless claims of government subterfuge, lies, and muzzling of investigators that still beleaguer members of the Flight 800 Independent Researchers Organization (see www.flight800.org).
In the hands of a master novelist like DeMille, the contradictions, anomalies, and scheming become a hair-raising, multi-faceted story that terrifies.
Two hundred and thirty people perished in the July, 1996, disintegration of Flight 800. The National Transportation Safety Board has determined that the explosion, said to have occurred in the center wing fuel tank as a result of the ignition of a fuel/air mix there, was an accident. Noticeably absent is discussion of actual and fictitious eyewitness reports of more than 100 people who saw something rise from the ocean on the horizon and strike the plane before it fell to earth.
The problem facing DeMille's John Corey, a former New York homicide detective retired with 75 percent disability and now working for the Federal Antiterrorist Task Force in New York, is that among investigative professionals, eyewitness testimony is iffy and requires independent substantiation.
His wife and task force partner Kate Mayfield lures her husband into the debate after dragging him to a five-year memorial for victims of the tragedy on a beach on Long Island, lining him up with a former combat pilot who knows up from down (the CIA suggested witnesses saw parts and fuel from the plane coming down, not something going up.) He suggests a kinetic missile that, since it pierced the plane and kept traveling, would have fallen outside the range of the crash.
Then she present him an NTSB investigator who dismissed in detail seven conspiracy theories (including the one about the kinetic missile) about how the plane was brought down. His view: the explosion "occurred at a place where an accidental explosion is most likely to occur - in an empty center fuel tank, filled with volatile vapors." Corey is nearly convinced. But when the investigator asks him to explain the streak of light people saw and he replies with the rote opinion of "optical illusion," the investigator says "no, that's not it, dammit" and stalks off.
This encounter, followed by not-so-veiled FBI and CIA promises that Corey will be undone if he works on a closed government case, which they insist the Flight 800 disaster now is, pique the investigator's curiosity and prompt gross disobedience that results in a nearly two-month punitive assignment in Yemen. His wife, diverted five years ago from the official probe of Flight 800 by her superiors, gets Tanzania. She counts herself among an unorganized group of law-enforcement professionals that might be called "People Who Believe Two Hundred Eyewitnesses."
The key to their success is finding independent corroboration. In DeMille's novel, it is out there and it is found. But strategy is everything in these affairs, and matters get out of hand for the good guys as the story proceeds to a staggering conclusion that shows DeMille at his suspenseful best.
Early on, John Corey, a man afflicted with a levity that gives his bosses fits, wondered if Flight 800 was the first American aircraft to be destroyed by enemy action within the United States and the second foreign directed terrorist attack on American soil, after the first World Trade Center bombing of February, 1993. A lot of other people, real and fictional, wondered the same thing. And in make-believe as in life, many still do.
Eileen Foley is a former Blade associate editor.