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It has chills, thrills and more sex than one would have thought possible in a few hundred pages. Ken Follett knows the correct formula for a plot-driven suspense novel, and in Night Over Water he inserts all the right elements of an enjoyable yarn. The resulting book is definitely no more than the sum of its parts, but one turns the pages fast enough. As with most of Follett's novels, satisfaction, though not superlative prose, is guaranteed.
Written in the tradition of such mystery novels as Murder on the Orient Express, Night Over Water takes place in a closed space from which no one can escape. The year is 1939, and war has just been declared between Britain and Germany. Pan American, which has recently introduced passenger service between the United States and Europe, sends a Flying Clipper off from Southampton, England. On board the luxurious plane, "high as a house and as long as a tennis court," are two dozen passengers and crew, each fearful that this will be the last flight out of Europe for many years.
Follett has assembled quite a quirky cast of characters to inhabit his story. The Clipper list includes: Lord Oxenford, a British fascist fleeing arrest with his family; Carl Hartmann, a distinguished Jewish physicist escaping from the Nazis; Harry Marks, a bold and debonair jewel thief one step ahead of the authorities; Diana Lovesy, a bored and buxom housewife seeking adventure in America; and Tom Luther, a dangerous man with a dark mission (or is it vice versa?).
As one might suspect from the above listing, most of the characters in Night Over Water are trying to escape something or someone, yet they have all booked passage on a flight from which there is, literally, no escape. Neat, huh?
Follett makes less convincing explanations for the coincidences which power the plot than, say, John Le Carre. But once he has contrived to get the characters on board the Clipper, the constricted space and contrasting personalities make for some delightful bonding scenes between the passengers.
The most entertaining is the inevitable confrontation between Lord Oxenford and Professor Hartmann, in which the nasty fascist receives a stern comeuppance from the more decent and freedom-loving of the passengers.
In both setting and style, Follett has geared Night Over Water to provide maximum entertainment. Doomed grandeur is always attractive in a book, and placing the action aboard the last flight of a Clipper is an inspired move. Follett's decision to employ multiple points of view also aids the story, especially when the same situation is presented from several perspectives.
Unfortunately, Follett's characters tend to be idealized types or expressions of certain feelings rather than fleshed-out, believable personalities. For example, Eddie Deakin, the Clipper's good-hearted engineer, is introduced thus:
"Eddie was a simple man. He had been born in a farm house a few miles out of Bangor. His father was a poor farmer, with a few acres of potato fields, some chickens, a cow and a vegetable patch. New England was a bad place to be poor."
When Eddie is forced through blackmail to aid a gang of hoodlums bent on disrupting the flight, his feelings are those which one would expect from a "simple" man. "He hated crooks. Too greedy to live like regular people and too lazy to earn a buck, they cheated and stole from hardworking citizens and lived high on the hog...The electric chair was too good for them."
Follett's treatment of the women in Night Over Water is slightly more annoying. Not only do all the females suffer from massive indecision, but their most frequent response to stressful situations is to burst out crying. While the men are preoccupied with the war in Europe, the women spend lengthy passages worrying about their love lives.
Even Margaret Oxenford, whose goals are less obsessively romantic than those of the other women, reacts to a moment of turbulence by thinking, "Before I die, I'd like to have my breasts stroked again."
But in a fast-paced novel rife with action and intrigue, most readers will forgive Follett his contrivances and lapses in characterization. So this author does not exactly re-invent the genre within which he works. One does not expect Raymond Chandler when picking up Follett. And anyway, Chandler's plots are a whole lot harder to follow.
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