A Flight of
Fantasy or Fact?
Washington Post, By Patrick
whose e-mail address is email@example.com
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page C03
By Nelson DeMille
Warner. 488 pp. $26.95
In "Night Fall" Nelson DeMille takes a close look at the explosion of
TWA Flight 800 off Long Island on July 17, 1996, and sees not the
mechanical failure that became the official explanation of the tragedy
but a government conspiracy to cover up a missile attack. To tell his
controversial story, DeMille brings back John Corey, the NYPD homicide
detective featured in two of his earlier novels. Retired on medical
disability after being shot by a terrorist, Corey has become a contract
employee for a federal anti-terrorism task force in New York. He works
there with his wife, Kate Mayfield, an FBI lawyer, whose doubts about
the official version of the crash spur him to action despite a
The novel opens on the evening of the crash. A man and a woman, affluent
and in their thirties, each married to another, drive to a deserted Long
Island beach. They take with them wine, a blanket and her video camera,
and proceed to take off their clothes and put on a show. At about 8:30,
cavorting on the sand, they are surprised to see something "rising off
the water . . . a streak of incandescent reddish orange fire." A moment
later, "It seemed to zigzag, then turn." Then they see a huge fireball
and burning pieces of an airplane falling into the sea. The couple
flees, only to find that the camera has captured an apparent missile
shooting up from the ocean. The man insists that they must destroy the
tape, lest their affair be exposed. But they have left behind a
wineglass with fingerprints on it and the camera's lens cap to hint at
their filming, enough to ensure that investigators will pursue them.
This couple is entirely fictional, but their secret becomes central to
We move ahead five years, to July 17, 2001. The investigation into the
crash is long closed, but Kate Mayfield has become close to some of the
families of its 230 victims, and she asks her husband to come with her
to the annual beachside memorial service. There a senior FBI agent warns
Corey that he and Kate will endanger their jobs if they question the
official version of the crash. Corey being a surly sort, the warning
ensures that he will pursue the case. Kate admits that she is part of a
hush-hush group of FBI agents who question the official explanation that
a frayed electrical wire caused a spark that ignited a gas tank.
Kate arranges for Corey to talk with a Navy pilot who flew 115 combat
missions over North Vietnam. This man was in his sailboat the evening of
the disaster and saw a streak of light rising into the sky toward Flight
800. He knows from experience exactly what a surface-to-air missile
looks like, and he has not the slightest doubt that was what he saw and
that it brought down the plane. There were, as DeMille often reminds us,
more than 200 witnesses who described seeing that streak of light, only
to find their accounts dismissed by the government. Kate also takes her
husband for a visit to a naval station where they view the reconstructed
Boeing 747, the result of an unprecedented salvage effort that brought
up more than 70,000 pounds of metal and plastic, more than a million
pieces, from a hundred feet of water. Then Kate produces an engineer who
is just as sure there was no missile as the Navy pilot is sure there was
one. There is lengthy discussion of whether the evidence supports the
possibility of a missile. Corey forces the expert to admit that "the
only evidence of the official cause of the crash is the lack of evidence
of anything else."
Corey keeps digging and is repeatedly warned off. The villains are
mostly CIA agents, and the hostility between the CIA and FBI is a
recurring theme. The CIA, DeMille reports, made a video animation
claiming that the witnesses who thought they saw a missile really saw
the reflection of burning fuel falling toward the ocean. The witnesses
say that is absurd, as do some at the FBI. There is also talk of radar
evidence of a never-identified speedboat fleeing the scene and of U.S.
war games in the area that night. Having presented the case for both a
mechanical malfunction and a missile attack -- either by "friendly fire"
or terrorists -- DeMille comes down hard on the side of a conspiracy.
His novel, which explores the conflicting theories about the crash in
far more detail than can be summarized here, will bring to a larger
audience a debate that has raged on the Internet for years.
When Corey and his wife persist in asking questions, both are sent
abroad to cool off. He returns home in early September -- the alert
reader will note that Sept. 11 is looming -- and stubbornly resumes his
investigation. Through brilliant detective work (or far-fetched
plotting, depending on how you look at it), he finds the errant wife of
the opening scene and obtains conclusive evidence of a missile attack.
At that point, Corey is trying to get the evidence to honest government
officials (if such can be found) before the conspirators eliminate him
and it for good.
"Night Fall" reminds me of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" in that it is
a triumph of substance over style. Its writing is pedestrian, the wise
guy Corey is one of the most obnoxious characters in memory, and there
are some absurd scenes when he runs unnecessary risks -- attacks a man
with a gun and the like. Moreover, DeMille does not resolve his story
but leaves us waiting for a sequel.
Still, "Night Fall" seems to be based on a hard core of fact that is
both fascinating and important. In an author's note, DeMille stress that
the novel draws on published accounts plus interviews with investigators
and eyewitnesses to the crash. He says he has "tried to represent all
sides of this controversy" but adds that he has taken "dramatic
liberties and literary license" when there is "conflicting evidence."
The reader doesn't know exactly what that means with regard to specific
allegations. As a young man, DeMille was an infantry platoon leader in
Vietnam, and he has been a best-selling novelist for 25 years.
Personally, I think he wrote this novel not just to make a buck, but
rather because he's deeply troubled by the questions surrounding the
fate of Flight 800. But there will certainly be those who will challenge
his embrace of conspiracy theories. Given the government's vast power to
create its own reality, the questions he raises and whatever controversy
he creates strike me as all to the good.
© 2001, 2002, 2003 & 2004