The 1970s were a big decade for airline-disaster dramas, from the movie Airport in 1970 to its ultimate parody Airplane in 1980. The 1977 William Marshall book Thin Air looks like an attempt to tap the healthy audience for airborne suspense, while continuing his Yellowthread Street series of police procedurals. Read in 2017, Thin Air gets reclassified as a yarn about terrorism – although an improvement over the previous (also terrorism-focused) Yellowthread Street book, Gelignite.
Thin Air is the fourth entry in the Yellowthread Street series, which take place in the fictional Hong Bay district of Hong Kong. The hard-working police of the Yellowthread Street police station are roped into a terrorist plot when their Chief Inspector Feiffer receives a strange phone call.
He said, “My Principal and I would estimate the demonstration would take place sometime within the next fifteen minutes.” There was a brief pause. “Fourteen minutes, thirty-three seconds. I repeat, there is a lethal device on board the aircraft. There is no chance of it being located.” He said blandly, “I’ll ring back at a later stage.” He said quietly, with a trace of pride in his voice, “My Principal and I have thought of everything.” He said urbanely, “I wish you a pleasant morning.” He gave Feiffer the number of the Kai Tak Airport Security. He said pleasantly, “It’ll save you looking it up.”
The plane in question was a chartered flight of Japanese businessmen and their wives, and indeed all of the passengers are killed by the mysterious device. Another airline disaster follows, bringing the upper echelons of Kai Tak Airport Security into heated conflict with Feiffer and his station.
At the same time, Yellowthread officers discover a collection of machine-gunned corpses in the sewers beneath Hong Bay. They are eventually identified (but not before some entertaining scenes at the morgue and with an informant named Dirty Elmo Fan) as local undesirables hired to plant the mastermind’s “devices” on airplanes, and then disposed of. The brutal efficiency of the terrorist cell, as well as their knowledge of police and airport security procedures
Feiffer’s largest problem is the head of the airport security, a British lawman named Dobbs. Dobbs possesses a disdain for the Chinese of Hong Kong that comes close to that of the mad bomber back in Gelignite, and this of course alienates his own underlings as well as the entire staff at Yellowthread Street. Frustrated by the elusiveness of the terrorists, tensions boil over to the point where Dobbs tabs Feiffer as the insider mastermind – an accusation which is reciprocated, if not openly.
The themes of terrorism and racism are common with Gelignite, a book which I found difficult to appreciate, but Thin Air reads better. It does have a couple of moments where Dobbs’ racist rants go on for too long. However, we get more amusing scenes of the Hong Bay underground and everyman bystanders that served the first two books so well.
Auden said, “Look at the last two [photographs] again.”
The senior sewerman looked at the last two again and passed them with the others to his partner.
Auden rubbed his nose. His nose was numb. Auden said, “They’re the bodies from the sewer.”
“The water channel.”
“The water channel. Not our sewer.” The senior sewerman said, “The old water channel.” He said, slightly piqued, “The old water channel is the responsibility of the Water Section of the Department of Public Works.” He said proudly — if a little weakly after the photos, “We’re the Sewer Section.” He said in a superior tone of voice, “Not the same thing at all.”
Eventually, O’Yee (the next Yellowthread detective in command) and Feiffer manage to break down the cool professionalism of the terrorist who keeps calling their station, and close in on the other conspirators for a final, violent showdown. Things get resolved chaotically and unpredictably, and we get to see Marshall’s talent for pulling surprises until the very end. Maybe he didn’t catch lightning in bottle like he did with Yellowthread Street, but Marshall’s fourth book in the series marks a turn back in the right direction. 6/10.