Golden Eye

LONG HAUL air travel has been very good to thriller writers

LONG HAUL air travel has been very good to thriller writers. Even people who are cerebral readers when on terra firma prefer, while in the air, a fast paced narrative.

They want something which will distract them from the tedium or fear of their elevated incarceration. So airport bookstores have become a lucrative market for the yarn spinners and one of the main heroes of the pressurised readers has been Michael Crichton.

The American writer's bestselling novels of the 1990s - Jurassic Park (1991), Rising Sun (1992), Disclosure (1993) - have been the perfect flyer's diversion movie ready tales told in short, tense scenes interspersed with enough well researched information (on genetic engineering, economic imperialism and sexual harassment law) to reassure snootier readers that their brains are not entirely treading air.

And, when they run out of pages, they are likely to watch one of the movies that has been produced from a similar book - Spielberg's Jurassic Park became the most successful film of all time - playing on the cabin entertainment system.

So passengers in transit this week will be thrilled to find a new hardcover Crichton title on display at Heathrow, Kennedy and all other English language destinations. However, they will soon discover that this time the former traveller's friend has produced the worst of all texts with which to settle down on a 747.

For Airframe is a thriller about a mid air disaster which strikes a commercial jet. The movie is, inevitably, already in production but, however successful, seems destined to become the first Crichton spin off to be rejected as an in flight movie.

Crichton is regarded as popular fiction's Mystic Mike. He has a knack for anticipating the saleable which, had it not made him impossibly rich as a novelist, might have earned him many millions as a stockbroker.

Jurassic Park - in which a scientist succeeds in replicating dinosaurs from DNA - was published just weeks before the first scientific articles claiming that cloning had become a genuine scientific possibility, and was therefore perfectly positioned to be an accessible focus for media debate on genetic engineering.

Rising Sun - in which a murder in a Tokyo corporation is the peg for an examination of the Japanese financial domination of America - perfectly coincided with a US election year in which insurgent candidates Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot had raised for the first time the question of the economic threat from the East.

And Disclosure - which centres on a sexual harassment suit in a Seattle computer corporation - had the luck or judgment to be published on the eve of the declaration of gender war in America, with the sexual harassment accusations brought by Anita Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and the emasculation of John Wayne Bobbitt by his wife.

The aviation thriller is already a well established genre - incorporating, among others, Arthur Halley's Airport and Craig Thomas's Rat Trap - and the melancholy history of passenger flight is such that any novel about an air disaster is nearly guaranteed a topical peg.

Yet, even so, it is another tribute to Crichton's fictional premonition that Airframe, a project he started two years ago, should come to be published in what has been the year of the scary aeroplane.

It reaches the bookstores within four months of the TWA 800 disaster and within a month of the world's worst mid air collision, over Delhi. Once notoriously labelled by a late night BBC2 arts programme as a "zeitgeist surfer", the author has caught the wave perfectly again.

Yet Crichton's position in the 1990s as one of only two American novelists to have become a superpower in both publishing and movie making - the other is the legal thriller writer John Grisham - is all the more surprising for the fact that, as he approached his 50th birthday five years ago, his artistic career would have been written off as an interesting failure.

Born in Chicago in 1942, Crichton seemed by adolescence someone designed if not for distinction then distinctiveness, standing 6ft 9ins and displaying a genius level IQ. Graduating from Harvard with a first class degree in anthropology, he spent a year lecturing in that subject before enrolling at Harvard Medical School.

Having already been supported by his family through one degree, he paid his way through medicine by writing hack thrillers, at a rate of several thousand words each day, under the psuedonyms Jeffrey Hudson and John Lange.

These designations were self conscious puns about his build, the former being a famous American dwarf and the latter a variation on Long John. The fact that he hid behind them suggests he assumed he would one day produce something better, although there was an early indication of zeitgeist surfing in A Case QJ Need, a Jeffrey Hudson thriller set in an abortion clinic, and published in 1968, just before the debate over the ethics of legalised terminations erupted.

Qualifying as a doctor the following year, Crichton took a fellowship with Jonias Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, but, though lie would soon be seeking Dr Salk's advice on dealing with sudden fame, his celebrity was only indirectly medical.

In 1969, Crichton published The Andromeda Strain, the first work with which he had been happy to see his own name on the cover.

The young editor assigned to the book, Robert Gottleib, made an intervention which would be crucial to the creation of the Crichton literary franchise. The Andromeda Strain tells of an attempt by five American biochemists to resist a lethal virus from space which has infected Earth after the crash of a scientific probe.

Gottleib advised the 29 year old Crichton to pare down character description and interior psychology and frame the book in the style of popular scientific journalism, with staccato factual prose, photocopied documents and diagrams, and a list of sources at the end.

Gottleib, the scholarly editor, and Crichton, the spoiled doctor, had engineered the technothriller, a merger between the novel and non fiction. The book also demonstrated the writer's skill at fictionalising prevailing anxieties, drawing on post Apollo II fears about the risks of penetrating space, although it can also be read today as impressively pre AIDS and pre Ebola in its depiction of viral mayhem.

It signalled an early indication of Crichton's attractiveness to film makers, earning him a life changing fee of $250,000 for the rights to the 1971 film.

Two more scientific nightmare novels followed: The Terminal Man (1972), in which medical electrodes turn a patient into a psychopath, and Westworld (1973), a futuristic thriller about a theme park in which tourists enact rather than observe their fantasies.

But Crichton's life since childhood had presented him with the sense that almost any career was possible for him and he became restless at the typewriter. He turned himself into a movie director by filming his own script of Westworld.

The film was enough of a success to put Crichton in demand behind the camera, but the next decade and a half looked like a classic California story of multiple marriages (he clocked up four), psychoanalysis and squandered talent. There were so so films - The First Great Train Robbery (1978) - and no no books, including a novelisation of Beowulf which Crichton now omits from his bibliographies.

Himself looking like an artistic dinosaur as his sixth decade loomed, Crichton sat down in his Santa Monica office apartment to write a techno thriller about reborn dinosaurs. In the five years since the publication of Jurassic Park, he has sold around 30 million books, which, including film rights of around $3 million for each of his recent titles, have put him up there with the boxers and the corporate raiders in the American income lists.

How did this turnaround happen? With Jurassic Park, Rising Sun and Disclosure, Crichton had anticipated, or chanced upon, two key elements in 1990s culture.

The first was that in a world increasingly saturated with fact in the form of visual and printed news - the task of popular fiction would be not escapist but explanatory. (The only two genres which rival the techno thriller for success - the legal thriller, led by Grisham, and the forensic thriller, pioneered by Patricia Cornwell - are also heavy with specialist knowledge.)

The second was that as a nervous Hollywood became ever less keen on original scripts and concepts, preferring stories which had shown to work in another form - the gap between novel and film treatment should be closed as tightly as possible. The Crichton formula depended on three elements: prescience, technology, and camera readiness.

Timely, informative and filmable, Airframe is a classic Crichton product, a return to form after the sloppy and opportunistic The Lost World, his sequel to Jurassic Park.

Set over the space of a single week - Crichton's preferred time scale, from The Andromeda Strain through to Rising Sun and Disclosure - the book begins with a catastrophic episode of turbulence aboard TransPacific Flight 545, an N22 twin engined airliner flying from Hong Kong to Denver.

Three passengers are dead and nearly 100 injured when the jet makes an emergency landing at Los Angeles airport. The narrative then switches to Norton Aircraft, manufacturer of the plane. A huge order for N22s is under negotiation with the Chinese and will be wrecked if the new generation plane is shown to have malfunctioned. Casey Singleton, who works in the incident review team at Norton, must find the explanation for the accident in an atmosphere of corporate secrecy and paranoia.

THOSE of us who make the case for the serious consideration of popular thrillers must accept that Crichton offers vulnerabilities to critical prosecution. The prose is disposable, though never incompetent, and characterisation amounts to strategic reminders of job titles.

If previous Crichton books have been movie scripts in disguise, Airframe doesn't even bother with the false spectacles and moustache of print narrative. The novel is divided into more than 100 short chapters, each of them a dialogue driven scene identified by its location scene.

Several potentially gripping episodes - including an eerie scene of the damaged plane running through a test of its electrical circuits in a darkened hanger - are so perfunctorily described that the reader's only response can be an eager anticipation of their Hollywood visualisation.

There are also numerous formulaic devices, including the artificially compressed time scheme (real accident investigations last up to two years) and the presence of an office ingenuis, to whom Casey can explain the key information about aviation. But the information is the point.

At the time of the row over the exploration of the erotic and metaphorical possibilities of transport technology in the movie of J. G. Ballard's Crash, it is instructive to turn to a work of art which considers destroyed technology from a purely practical angle.

Airframe is an extraordinary plane man's guide to the methods and ethics of the aeronautics industry. Crichton's theme is the way in which the technological miracle of a passenger jet is undermined by corporate practices - spare part counterfeiture, sloppy maintenance, airline greed - which then necessitate the equal technological miracle of accident investigation and reconstruction. The plot cleverly combines elements from most of the high profile crashes of recent years.

Intriguingly, given that Crichton is a multimillionaire whose previous books have been somewhat rightwing in their assumptions, Airframe is an open attack on the free market deregulation of the airlines by President Reagan and the resultant reduction in maintenance and passenger safety.

A sub plot featuring journalistic vultures from an American television current affairs show covering the accident also blames what Crichton sees as media irresponsibility on the removal of the fair reporting restrictions on television journalists, another initiative of the Reagan administration.

This is by far the author's most necessary book, for the topical dilemmas presented in Jurassic Park and Disclosure were largely irrelevant to everyday life. It is unlikely that dinosaurs will ever walk the earth again and, while sexual harassment is a live issue in the business world, the variation Crichton explored - a female boss targeting a male employee - was so rare as to be a gimmick rather than an investigation.

But commercial airliners do malfunction, on a roughly monthly basis, and so Crichton's latest thriller deals with urgent rather than merely diverting material.

A lesser writer would have made their fictionally stricken plane the target of terrorism, but Crichton realises that the majority of air accidents result from mechanical mishandling or malfunction. The increasing suggestion that the TWA 800 disaster was caused by technical failure has, typically, come at exactly the right time for his book.

If you ever find in a publisher's catalogue the announcement of an impending Crichton novel called Armageddon, gather your loved ones and head for the hills.