Sunday, August 9, 2009

Libros del Awesome: Almost Midnight by Martin Caidin

I would scan in the cover but my stupid scanner is broken. The damn thing thinks it has a paper jam and won't let me do anything until I clear it. I don't need to print to scan but this piece of crap thinks it does. Remember kids, if you pay less than $100 for a printer/scanner you might as well buy two and keep the other as a spare.

Anyway, Almost Midnight by Martin Caidin. I really wish my scanner was working because his jacket photo is awesome. Imagine a man with a big-ass handlebar moustache flying a plane, wearing a jaunty pilot's cap, smoking a long thin cigar. (I'll post it when I get my scanner working, promise)

As an author he is one of those guys we'll probably never see again. He's sort of a Tom Clancy from the 60s and 70s, and as an avid pilot most of his books involve airplane or other aeronautic stuff going on. I'd classify him as a Men's Adventure author and he's one of my big influences, though unlike him I don't so much care about the details of flying aircraft X or things like that. Where his fiction does get into anything like science fiction he's more like Michael Crichton - hard facts with the sharp edges blunted off a bit to make it more accessible. He's probably most famous for Cyborg, which is what "The Six Million Dollar Man" was based off of, and which is about ten thousand times more awesome than the show. Square that for the feckless "Bionic Woman" which I have a whole thing about I won't bother you with here.

Anyway, Almost Midnight is pretty much the quintessential Caidin novel. Lots of planes and other flying machines, a gripping plot, and a thought experiment in novel form. A transport plane carrying live nuclear missles is hijacked somewhere in California, and as the FAA, the Air Force, the FBI and even the goddamned Civil Air Patrol get into the search, the men responsible ransom the country, threatening to destroy cities if they don't get - wait for it - one hundred million dollars. Well, that's still a lot of money today anyway but I couldn't resist.

As thrillers go this follows what I like to call the Snowball Plot: most of the book, the main characters are mostly clueless, grasping at straws and struggling to get even an inch closer to the bad guys, who are spending most of their time setting off awesome plans, from a daring parachute/hot-air-balloon bank robbery in a tiny Georgia town to eventually setting off a nuke, and then smoking cigarettes and drinking El Presidente brandy and laughing about it.

But then, as always happens in a Snowball, the bad guys have a stroke of bad luck and the law is right there to catch them when it happens, and from there it's all downhill. You see this plot a lot in stuff from the 70s due to the widespread pessimism of the time - it leaves you with the impression that all the bad guys had to do was not do that one stupid thing (and often in the bad versions of this plot, it's inexplicably bad, the writer has obviously got himself in a corner) and they would have got the gold/blown up DC/whatever and no one was really a bad enough dude to rescue the President. (Admittedly this is pretty much what real police/intelligence work is like. But then that's why they call it fiction, if you ask me.)

This makes the book a bit of a slog. In one respect it's a thriller because you're just waiting for that moment, the Turn. But I think Caidin waited a bit too long. It doesn't help that because of all the government acronyms flying around, there are too many main characters, and they all have names like Bob Anderson or Jim MacIntyre. Hell, even a guy named Ching Wu or something wouldn't even have helped. I know the sheer unrealisticness of it would have set Caidin's teeth on edge - he strikes me as the kind of guy who gets annoyed when movies call a plane or a gun one thing when they're really using another - he probably should have just had the focus on the FBI and let the rest of the guys do run-ins. He keeps trying to cut the main characters down to just two, but he can't resist bringing people in when his wargame scenario says they need to have another character show up because the FBI doesn't do underwater demolition or whatever.

That having been said, things mostly keep moving, and when the Snowball starts rolling it all gets wrapped up in firey death for the bad guys. Even though I knew what was coming Caidin did a good job of making me think at least some of them could get away, helped by his characterization of them as a motley crew of people who feel like they got screwed over by the government for one reason or another.

Another quibble with the plot. I think the Turn was realistic and good - one of the bad guys encounters a racist landlord while trying to rent an apartment to put a bomb in and basically blows their cover. But the problem with this is that the centerpiece of the book is the nuclear explosion the bad guys set off on a mountaintop to show everyone they mean business. Those who care will love how this is more of a wargame scenario than anything else - I just liked all the exploding eyeballs. People always forget those. Anyway, to me I thought this was a classic example of why I don't usually read books like this - the author is too caught up in getting things "right" and loses track of the story. By wargaming a scenario and writing it down instead of putting together a complete plot he misses things like this. He treats the bad guy's detonation of the nuke as essentially inevitable, which it no doubt would be in the situation he set up. But that's not the point, at least not to me.

This is supposed to be an Adventure book, not a Horror book. The difference is the inevitablility. Caidin gets caught up in getting across the horror of a nuclear explosion that, even in the wilderness of California, still kills a shitload of people and there's nothing anyone can do about it. That's all great but I would have liked it better if he would have combined this with the Turn - setting off the bomb is the bad guy's greatest triumph, but it all goes downhill from there for whatever reason. I'm not going to rewrite the book but I think you get the idea.

All that having been said I'm still a Caidin fan. Though he obviously put together his stories by coming up with an idea and then asking all his military/aviation/law-enforcement pals "what would happen if, say, a bunch of terrorists got a nuclear bomb?" and then filling in the gaps with characters, short backstories that actually matter (as opposed to, say, Tom Clancy, who to me is notorious for telling us the life stories of characters we don't care about because they're just there to fly Jack Ryan to Red October), and a couple of twists, Caidin still writes good books that aren't doorstops and don't demand you understand the dynamics of flight or learn the arcane protocols of the military to get the story.

And Almost Midnight is a perfect example of Caidin at his consistent best. The man was a machine and I've never picked up a book of his that I didn't like or find the same level of quality as the last one. He was a blockbuster author right up there with Michener and just shy of being immortalized as a zombie author...

Martin Caidin

"The Doomsday Club"
written by Schmecky Goldberg

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