A group of aviation misfits sets out on a quixotic mission to airlift nuclear material from Russia to Iraq to raise money. The motive is not greed, because the money is going to a good cause–the support of widows and orphans of their friends who were killed on previous missions.
A GROUP OF aviation misfits sets out on a quixotic mission to airlift nuclear material from Russia to Iraq to raise money. The motive is not greed, because the money is going to a good cause–the support of widows and orphans of their friends who were killed on previous missions. The hero also wishes to revenge himself on the CIA, who have ‘stolen’ the funds he had accumulated for this purpose. The British and American secret services try to stop the transfer of nuclear fuel. The plot hinges on which side will ultimately win.
The hero is a pilot the wrong side of fifty, a retired SAS soldier and mercenary. In the novel’s predecessor, White Lie, he had gone to ground, peacefully teaching at an American university, having taken another man’s identity. His wife, a television producer, was raped and slaughtered after investigating illegal drugs, and White Lie is about his revenge. In Saigon Express, the hero has a girlfriend who is also a pilot. She insists on coming on the mission, even though he would rather she didn’t, and this provides a romantic sub-plot.
As this review is for Pilot, it is worth noting that this is not really a flying book. Perhaps John Templeton Smith’s earlier works had more flying in them. He recently published an article on writing aviation thrillers in Pilot, which suggests that they did.
I have read advice for would-be fiction writers that they should begin within one of the recognised genres (such as the aviation thriller). The number of potential purchasers may be small, but they will be enthusiastic enough to overlook the occasional cliché or two-dimensional character. The trouble with genres is, sales are so modest that no one, publisher, agent or author makes any real money. To reach best-seller status you have to break out into the wider market.
There are two routes. One, followed brilliantly by Brian Lecomber with Talk Down, and by Derek Robinson with Piece of Cake, is to write a genre–in this case, flying–novel that the wider public, people who aren’t at all interested in aeroplanes, will want to read. The second route, which John Templeton Smith appears to have followed with Saigon Express, is to tone down the flying.
It is true that the hero is an aviator, and that one plot element depends on a successful air-to-air refuelling, but the actual flying appears to take up only about five per cent of the novel. The resulting work is more John Le Carré than Brian Lecomber.
The other 95 per cent of the book seemed to me to be mostly conversation. There is also a murder, one sex scene and a bit of torture–nasty, but not overly so.
Personally I found the book interesting, although perhaps a little lacking in excitement and suspense for a work of this kind. The Vietnam setting is described with considerable authenticity. One has the impression that the author has been there and is writing from memory. Some of the detail also is interesting–for instance, did you know that military pilots’ survival vests contain condoms because they can be used as water bags, holding a litre apiece?
There are some nice stylistic flourishes, but also some dialogue that is too knowing, too full of references and bravado to ring true. There is also some very good writing. For instance, the description of a professional pilot wakening:
‘Maria Espinosa heard the faint traffic sounds first. She was lost for a moment in that long-haul pilot’s nightmare of day-time-location. A few panic-filled seconds of associating the sound with that of aircraft engines–believing she had fallen victim to micro-sleep; body jolting awake with an intensity that can be frightening. Grabbing for imaginary controls, only to find as the eyes flicker open it is an illusion. There follows relief, and sometimes when the exhaustion of the previous duty period’s flying has not quite worn off, turning