- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

On July 17, 1996, several hundred horrified people became accidental witnesses to the mysterious series of explosions that destroyed TWA Flight 800 in mid-air off the Long Island coast. Onlookers watched as the burning plane tumbled into the Atlantic, carrying 230 people to their deaths.

Of those many witnesses, some 200 claim to have seen a mysterious streak of light rise off the ocean from over the horizon and intersect with the jet moments before the initial explosion. Some speculated that this was a rocket or missile, and that TWA 800 was downed in a yet-unexplained attack by sources unknown. The official government report claimed that the jet exploded because of an extremely rare mechanical failure.

The streak of light? The federal government explained this as an optical illusion caused by a stream of flaming jet-fuel spewing from the dying plane. Some 200 people were told in essence that they didn’t know the difference between up and down, between a rising light and a falling light.

This much is fact and the case is closed, though one need not be an anti-government conspiracy nut to see that something about the official report on TWA 800 does not pass the sniff test. The questions that remain lend the story of the doomed flight an enduring sense of “what-if?”

In “Night Fall,” novelist Nelson DeMille enlists the services of John Corey, his hard-nosed NYPD detective (turned contract agent to the FBI’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force) to delve into the case and discover the truth, five years after the event.

Best known for his novel “The General’s Daughter” (1996), Mr. DeMille has put detective Corey through his paces in the well-crafted thrillers “Plum Island” (1998) and “The Lion’s Game” (2000). The latter was a remarkably prophetic book, considering developments in the current war on terrorism.

On the fifth anniversary of TWA 800’s final flight, Corey attends a memorial service on the North Shore of Long Island, with his wife, FBI lawyer Kate Mayfield. Readers were introduced to Kate in “The Lion’s Game,” in which she met Corey. In “Night Fall,” she nudges John to look into the closed case and determine the legitimacy of the government’s conclusion. Almost immediately, before Corey even considers doing anything related to Flight 800’s story, he is warned by an overbearing CIA agent not to poke into the case.

This is just the sort of heavy-handed, inadvertent tip Corey needs to suspect that there are forces at work trying to hide something. Determined to look into the case, John and Kate discover that there is evidence an amorous couple were present on a lonely stretch of Long Island beach on the evening of July 17, 1996, videotaping themselves as they lay in the surf-line making love. There is some speculation that their videotape may have captured the destruction of TWA 800 — and the mysterious streak of light. If the couple can be identified (and they covered their tracks well) and if their videotape still exists, the truth about the doomed jet might be revealed and a measure of justice accorded to the victims’ families.

Much of the novel concerns John’s attempts to discover the lovers and whether their tape exists. It also concerns Corey and Mayfield’s attempts to stay ahead of the shadowy forces that want to shut down their nosey investigations — and possibly rid the world of the troublesome John Corey himself, forever. The novel hurtles toward a climax that is to some extent foreseeable but is stunning nonetheless.

John Corey is more than a stereotypical loose-cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules, la “Dirty Harry” Callahan. He’s also immensely shrewd, funny, obnoxiously vulgar, brave to the point of foolhardiness, drop-dead sarcastic, and as relentless as a rabid bulldog in his pursuit of the truth. Most of the novel is narrated in the first-person voice of Corey, which makes for an entertaining, fast-moving plot.

As an added attraction to the reader, he is played off against his old nemesis, CIA uber-jerk Ted Nash. When last we saw Ted, in “The Lion’s Game,” he was lying on the grounds of the Reagan Ranch with a bullet-hole through his forehead, stone dead. How he was resurrected is never made clear in “Night Fall.” For his part, Ted is pleased to be back among the living to make Corey’s life as miserable as possible by attempting to thwart the detective’s investigation at every turn.

There are occasional things that might give the reader pause. At one point five pages into the novel, Mr. DeMille describes a man sitting in a Jeep near the Long Island shore and taking in the view: “The sun was sinking over the Atlantic Ocean, and he noticed that the ocean itself was smooth as a pond.” I will take Mr. DeMille at his word that it is possible to be somewhere in the continental U.S. and view the sun sinking over the Atlantic.

At another point in the novel, the maitre d’ at a Manhattan restaurant addresses Corey as “Mr. Mayfield” — but perhaps this is an inside joke between Corey and the maitre d’. A more serious question might be whether it was entirely necessary for Mr. DeMille to be so graphic in his descriptions of the amorous couple’s sexual activities. From the standpoint of plot development, we can understand that the couple’s acrobatics lend strong weight to their motives for maintaining anonymity and keeping their videotape secret, if it exists at all. Even so, the language and some instances of plot in “Night Fall” are not for everyone.

With that said, however, “Night Fall” remains an outstanding detective thriller that fairly flies along in pace, entertaining and challenging readers even as it gives them some disturbing possibilities to think about.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind and a forthcoming critical biography of Virginia novelist/screenwriter Earl Hamner.

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