"Night Fall," Nelson DeMille's long-awaited new novel, is nearly 500 pages long, but when all is said and done, there is more said than done in a tale that has just about enough plot for an extended short story.
To wit: John Corey, an iconoclastic detective, sets out to find witnesses who videotaped a terrorist act and finds them through good detective work (and one overlooked essential clue) despite his own government's efforts to obstruct him.
This is not a novel's worth of material - especially with its letdown of a climax. You might forgive spending half an hour to get the end result, but one expects more after a couple of days of reading.
Based on the strength of his past writing, DeMille all the while seems to be promising more than he ever delivers. The fact that the sarcastic Corey is such an agreeably disagreeable narrator helps keep the pages turning, event-filled, or not.
The story begins in 1996 with a thrill-seeking yuppie couple filming their sex act on the beach. The real fireworks start when their tape captures a missile climbing into the air and TWA Flight 800 explodes.
Five years later, Corey, a retired NYPD detective now attached to the Joint Task Force on Terrorism, is taken to the annual memorial service for the Flight 800 victims by his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, who worked on the case.
Kate, who never was satisfied with the official explanation that mechanical failure caused the crash, has a day planned that will walk her husband through the investigation, from visiting sites to interviewing forensic experts.
The deal is clinched when an arrogant FBI supervisor warns Corey to keep his nose out of the Flight 800 case. Apparently, the profiling department had the day off when someone decided this was an effective way to deal with Corey.
The adulterers left clues on the beach - most importantly the lens cap from the video camera - but they supposedly were never found. Kate points Corey in this direction.
DeMille does a pretty good job of walking the reader through the investigation and showing why some very smart people would buy the mechanical failure theory - namely, that besides the eyewitnesses, there is no evidence of foul play.
The statement is even made that a Holy Grail - the one witness with the photographic or documentary proof to make a case - exists for every conspiracy theory. And, of course, that's exactly what Corey goes out and finds.
DeMille makes some excellent points about the intelligence flaws of both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
He also underscores the politically correct handcuffs on counterintelligence when one federal agent refers to a terrorist group as generic "religious extremists," and Corey counters with, "Oh, were they Buddhists?"
The big problem with this premise, however, is the oxymoron of anonymous terrorist acts. The idea that people who can't behead a hostage without making a video would shoot down an airliner in a way that hides the cause of the crash demands an explanation.
What good is knocking down one airliner to al-Qaida? How does one mysterious airplane incident strike terror into American hearts?
If airplanes began falling from the sky on a regular basis, that would justify the effort it takes to mount a terrorist operation. If that was the plan and the CIA stopped it, why would the agency cover up that fact?
DeMille paints himself into a dramatic corner because he does not want to go so far as to answer these questions. While he is not above exploiting the incident, he apparently is too responsible to go the Oliver Stone/Michael Moore route. Warning: Plot spoiler to follow.
While I really like Nelson DeMille and agree with nearly every political point he makes in the book, I can't endorse using recent tragedies with still-grieving victims as mere plot devices - at least not without more justification than we get in "Night Fall."