The Cover-Up by Dana Griffin
The Cover-Up is a thriller set around an air accident investigation. That’s an inspired choice: while there are plenty of thrillers set upon hijacked or saboatged airliners, here the crash takes place right at the start, and the real action starts after an Omega Airlines 737 has gone off the end of the runway at La Guardia airport and all the survivors have been picked up, as investigators sit down to try to work out why a routine take-off went wrong.
There is something compelling about all those television documentaries on air crash investigations, and the format turns out to lend itself perfectly to a thriller. There is a mystery to be solved at the heart of the book, one in which anyone who has ever been a passenger on a commercial airliner will feel a stake. And in The Cover-Up, there are those with their own reasons to keep what happened on board Flight 918 from ever reaching the public.
Into the middle of this is sent Kyle Masters, one of Omega’s senior training pilots, to be the airline’s representative at the investigation. At first he just sees it as a sad and unpleasant task — he knew one of the pilots — and a stepping stone to the promotion he is after, until he discovers all is not right with the investigation. Then he finds himself conducting his own private research into what happened, and why some one’s trying to cover it up, with the help of a sympathetic and attractive National Transport Safety Board (NTSB) investigator, Lori Almond.
The author, Dana Griffin, is an experienced US airline pilot, and it shows. What sets The Cover-Up apart from countless thrillers is its realism. Griffin has not given his crash some spectacular but unlikely cause: what makes Flight 918 go off the end of the runway is highly believable, the sort of thing that might happen in real life.
And for much of the book, this realism holds up, through the early part of the investigation when the different parties — the NTSB, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the airline, even Kyle’s rival within his own company — all seem more concerned with jockeying for position and protecting their own turf than working out what happened on the 737.
The realism holds up, too, in the book’s depiction of the will-they, won’t-they love triangle between Kyle, Lori, and Kyle’s increasingly estranged wife, Karen. Indeed, the breakdown of Kyle’s marriage, and the tension between his anger at his wife and his continuing love for her, is handled with considerably more subtlety and tenderness than you’d usually expect from such a fast-paced thriller.
Griffin gives us a hint of where he takes his inspiration as a writer when he has two of the characters discuss Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Their criticism is that Larsson’s book takes too long to get going, and Griffin has certainly tried to avoid that. The Cover-Up starts at a frenetic pace, the 737 going off the runway on the second page, and never lets up,
But Griffin has made some sacrifices to keep his pace up. The passengers killed and injured in the crash are barely mentioned, and everyone in the investigation seems a little too unconcerned with them.
And the furious pace takes its toll on the characterisation as well: after the complexity of Kyle’s feelings for his wife have been so well drawn, his sudden decision in the middle of the book to fly to Chicago without telling her seems out of character — so much so you can’t help sympathising with Karen over her desire for a divorce.
For me, the book’s ending was something of a disappointment. The realism which had been the book’s greatest strength gives way in the final chapters to some of the more cliched apparatus of the thriller. But it holds up well until the final pages, and there is a desperate race against time which will have readers hooked. This is a classic, fast-paced thriller for those who like their books full of action, but one that does some other things surprisingly well.