- - Thursday, July 18, 2019


Describing his life at the beginning of “Layover,” Joshua Fields says, “I passed through airport gates across the country, handed over my boarding passes, thanked the flight attendants and the pilots, I didn’t notice faces any more. I didn’t connect with people I passed on my travels. We transacted things. Business. Commerce. Money.” 

Indeed, he is well-paid. He works for his father in commercial real-estate development, taking several flights a week to negotiate deals. Sounds glamorous, or at least, pretty good going for someone in their mid-20s. But he is terrified of flying. He needs a dose of Xanax and alcoholic fortification in the airport bar before he can step on a plane. Even if flying were not a problem, he doesn’t like his job, but feels indebted to his father, who raised him single-handed, so he thinks he must stick with it. 

Then one day in Atlanta’s airport bookstore he meets a beautiful woman in big sunglasses and invites her to join him in his pre-flight drink. She tells him her name is Morgan, and when she ups and leaves him in the bar, she kisses him passionately, saying “I’m sorry. But we’re never going to see each other again.” She quickly disappears in the crowded concourse. 

Now if Joshua had had a literary education, he might have worried about a woman called Morgan. He would have read about the goings-on in King Arthur’s court, and remembered the alluring but morally ambivalent Morgan le Fey, who’s sometimes benevolent but is a sorceress with potential for tricksiness and evil. Evidently Joshua hadn’t read or didn’t recall the medieval Morgan, so he’s enthralled with her 21st-century avatar — which is just as a literary education would have predicted. 

Still reeling from that kiss and Morgan’s disappearance, he catches sight of the TV in the bar and sees her on the screen. She is a missing person. It would seem he should immediately call the police. Instead, he texts his father he won’t be meeting him in Florida, and rushes to get himself on Morgan’s flight to Nashville. He wants to talk to her, to help her perhaps. But when he speaks to her on the plane she’s says her name is not Morgan, and tells the flight attendant he is harassing her. 

One focus of “Layover” is Joshua’s infatuation with Morgan, his belief that he must find her and figure out which of the scenarios fleeting across his mind is true. “Morgan was being chased. She was running to something or away from someone. She owed money or had defaulted on a loan. A relationship had ended poorly …”

Another focus is, of course, Morgan. Clearly, she’s afraid. As Joshua pursues her, she sometimes tells him about herself, sometimes seems to welcome him, but just as often rebuffs or misleads him, even though he is the knight coming to her rescue.  

Yet another focus is Kimberley Givens, a detective in a small town in Kentucky. She’s desperate for promotion so she’ll have a predictable schedule that will make her life as a single parent easier. Right now, her career prospects are looking dimmer because her investigation of the disappearance of a local businessman is stalled.

Author David Bell introduces Kimberley into the novel early — switching attention from Joshua in the airport to the detective taking her daughter to soccer practice. Readers are alert to the possibility that her investigation of a missing person is going to dovetail into the tales of Morgan and Joshua.

Having set these three characters in motion by page 35, the author’s task is now to explore the gears that mesh them together. He does this in a workman-like way, but the second half of the book, though full of incident and even surprises, is less gripping than the first half.

One reason for this is that any reader who has ever whiled away a layover in a busy airport will respond to the idea that its combination of random meetings and airline complications opens a rich lode of possibilities for a novelist. David Bell taps into them in the quickly-paced beginning of “Layover,” but as Joshua follows Morgan to small-town Kentucky, the novel takes off from the intriguing airport and lands in the ordinary territory of detective fiction.

Another reason is that Joshua’s disaffection with his job is never far from his mind. It is a serious and common problem, contrasted by Kimberley’s commitment to her work. Joshua should quit and find something more fulfilling. “Layover” implies that the breakout that led to him chasing Morgan is a start. But this is glib. While the derring-do of detective fiction lends itself to the depiction of the troubled investigator, it does not easily support the exploration of social and psychological solutions to life issues.

Still, for reading over the summer, perhaps on a layover, this latest novel from a popular author will hold attention. 

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

• • •

By David Bell
Berkley,  $16, 416 pages

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