Thrill in the air

Flight, by Adam Thorpe, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 394 pages

Adam Thorpe has the profile of a poetic, literary novelist. He is best known for his debut, Ulverton, a portrait of an imaginary English village down the ages, and now a Penguin Classic. Ulverton crops up briefly as a location in Flight but this new book is an out-and-out thriller. On the face of it, this is like Merchant Ivory making a slasher movie, and I should imagine Thorpe has gone “genre” in order to make more money, the profession of literary novelist in 2012 presenting all the exciting prospects as that of blacksmith in about 1950.

Flight concerns a 51-year-old freelance freight pilot – a “freight dog” – called Bob Winrush (often mispronounced Windrush, which is even more punning). He is offered 90 grand to take some dodgy goods to Turkmenistan and, it seems, to bring some even dodgier goods back. He gets out of the job and those who take it on instead begin to end up dead. It is obvious that Bob himself is deemed to know too much and he eventually flees to the Hebrides. So here is one of the leanest and most enjoyable of thriller motifs, as used in The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan: the moral man pursued by conspirators and going to ground.

The book is actually not such a departure as it might appear. Thorpe has always been interested in professions. His short story collection, Shifts, features, for example, the confessions of a dustbin man, while his novel Hodd was a mud-spattered story about Robin Hood that makes all other stories about Robin Hood, however determinedly gritty and unshaven, seem Disneyfied. Above all, Thorpe has always written crisply and with a dry humour.

In fact, one of the chief pleasures of Flight is a kind of manly drollery that I found reminiscent of Len Deighton (which I mean as a high compliment): “About ten hours later they made their approach into Dubai against a strong wind made more interesting by sand”; “Andrew fixed him with the full five-yard stare but from five inches away”. Thorpe makes the case that, except in emergencies, pilots are “dreamier than most”, and Bob inhabits a jet-lagged world of globalised strangeness. At one point he works for a certain Sheikh Ahmed, flying his personal plane, which is fitted with a collection of medieval crossbows and a Jacuzzi, in which the Sheikh smokes “a Dunhill Infinite whose ash swirled into the bubbles”. In the small hours of the morning, the airport hotel at Istanbul is all “massively empty conference spaces”. The strangeness leaks through to England. At a self-storage depot in “the edgelands of Reading”, Bob is attended to by “a large wheezing storeman called, according to his plastic nametag, TAG”.

The life of a pilot is evoked with details of great acuity but then Thorpe’s father was a pilot, as was Bob’s old man, whose motto was: “Take your time, punch hard”. An aircraft is known as “the bird”; sound-insulated ones are “hush-kitted”. Taking off at midnight from Plovdiv “with a touch of snow on the runway”, there is “the usual 727 shake-it-about”. This book is so much better-written than most thrillers that it’s almost ridiculous.

Thorpe is not as hyperactive a plotter as some thriller-readers would like. We doggedly follow the one man, Bob, as his justifiable neurosis deepens. Four hundred pages is about 50 too many and there is a slight sagging in the middle as Winrush – and possibly Thorpe – wonders how to play things. But the pleasure of the prose and the wit of the dialogue make this idling a pleasure, like waiting for a slightly delayed flight in a first-class lounge at Heathrow. You know something good is in store – and you are duly rewarded.

Andrew Martin’s latest novel, ‘The Baghdad Railway Club’, is published by Faber in June

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