Sunday, 7 September 2014
My immediate thought was that it was a factual account of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center thirteen years ago. With the title 911, and the words “Terror” and “New York” on the cover, that’s a reasonable assumption. The seller must have thought the same way, since she’d stacked the book under “Military History”.
After a few seconds thought, however, I realized that couldn’t be the case. They’d stopped producing covers like that long before 2001 (more’s the pity). The price on the back, 85 pence, strongly indicates an origin in the mid-seventies. After I’d bought the book and taken it out of its plastic bag, I saw that the publication date inside was 1977.
Actually, this is a work of fiction, by an author I’d never heard of before – Thomas Chastain. I’d like to creep people out by saying the novel is a prophetic vision of future events, but it isn’t. The “terrorist” villain is a lone psychopath with a grudge against the city of New York, who plants a series of time-bombs around midtown Manhattan. The title refers to the emergency telephone number (equivalent to 112 or 999 in the UK), where the bomber leaves taunting messages. The book is essentially a police procedural, similar in style to the Kojak TV series – also based in New York – which was popular at the time.
The plot is pretty good, but the novel has far too much padding for my taste. It’s 280 pages long, but could easily be cut to half that length. If the book had been 140 pages (as many novels were in those days), then I’d probably give it a top rating. As it is, I found parts of the book almost unreadably tedious. The last few chapters are absolutely gripping stuff, though.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the book, judged by modern standards, is how cozy it is. Despite the wording on the cover, there really isn’t any “terror” at all. The focus is almost entirely on the police investigation, with very little about the public or media reaction to the bombings. There’s a distinct lack of gratuitous violence, too (no, I’m not disappointed – I’m just saying). Although there are a dozen bombing incidents in the course of the novel, they cause very few fatalities or serious injuries.
In fact it’s almost a case of “gratuitous non-violence”. The clearest example is when one of the bombs is placed under the back seat of a bus. This foreshadows Britain’s own 9/11 – the 7/7 London Transport bombings which killed 52 people in July 2005, half of them on a Number 30 bus that exploded in Tavistock Square. But when the Number 4 bus blows up on Fifth Avenue in the novel, it just happens to be out of service at the time, so there’s no-one on board except the driver. And because the bomb was right at the back, he only suffers from smoke inhalation. Like I said – gratuitous non-violence!
Of course, the world was a much simpler place in the seventies. In those days, the word “bomber” was more likely to conjure up images of a large military aircraft than a homicidal individual. And that reminds me...
Since I mentioned the Yeovilton Air Day in the first paragraph, here are some pictures I took (not great quality, I’m afraid) of what must be the most beautiful bomber still flying – Vulcan XH558, the Spirit of Great Britain. The pilot on this occasion was almost as legendary as the aircraft – Martin Withers, who led the first of the Black Buck bombing raids against Stanley airfield in the Falklands in 1982.