What to buy at the airport

by Chris Bertram on April 7, 2008

What to do on planes, apart from sleep, follow the route on the screen or go deaf trying to hear to movie soundtrack? Well read, of course. But I’ve found that Tolstoy doesn’t really do it for me there, in departure lounges or even in similar situations (buses and trains). So it is thrillers, crime, “mystery” (as they appear to call it in Powell’s bookstore) for me. My most recent indulgence is Lee Child’s Reacher series, and most recently his _Bad Luck and Trouble_ (which I picked up in LAX on the way to Portland – I had to buy when I read the blurb: the hero is in Portland and has to rush to LA).

For those who don’t know, Reacher is a former military policeman from the US Army, with a taste for classic blues, who is spending his retirement in semi-vagrancy discovering the country of his citizenship (he grew up on military bases overseas) and gets sucked into defeating an improbable series of wicked conspiracies. Child (a Brit) writes decently and his plotting holds the attention. And whilst you wouldn’t call Reacher a liberal, he has a pretty jaundiced attitude towards the claims the American right (and indeed official America) makes for itself. There are a few weaknesses: Child makes too many plots turn on amazing coincidences and you can confidently place money on one of the apparently nice cops/FBI agents/similars turning out to be in the pockets of the bad people. So far, though, these have been forgivable flaws.

Hat tip to Steven Poole, who mentioned Child “here”:http://stevenpoole.net/blog/books-of-the-year-2007/ .



dsquared 04.07.08 at 10:41 pm

There are a few weaknesses: Child makes too many plots turn on amazing coincidences and you can confidently place money on one of the apparently nice cops/FBI agents/similars turning out to be in the pockets of the bad people

both also the case for John Buchan (and thinking about it, Richard Hannay is a very similar lead character).


Flippanter 04.07.08 at 10:50 pm

Reacher’s kind of a dick, though, without the dreaminess that redeems Travis McGee’s amour propre. At least two of the books include speeches explaining how much less tough, smart and able Reacher’s brother was.


Dave Weeden 04.07.08 at 10:50 pm

Ditto D2: are you by any chance dissing Wilkie Collins?


Dave Weeden 04.07.08 at 10:54 pm

Well re #2 Reacher was probably just grateful that his brother wasn’t named Mycroft. OK, I haven’t read Reacher, but it does take some balls to invent a near omnipotent character and then to say, “Well, his brother was the smart one of course.”


Bill Gardner 04.08.08 at 1:01 am

Warning to Chris: the formula gets old fast.


vivian 04.08.08 at 1:06 am

For long flights, I like books that are page-turners, but not deep. Enough to forget I’m human origami, but not good enough that I want to think about it, or savor the prose. Until I read them all, Robert Ludlum’s stuff was exactly right. So do the Child books bear reading in less forced circumstances too, or should I wait for a flight?


Chuck Darwin 04.08.08 at 2:03 am

Although I ran through them rather quickly, I found Chandler perfect for flights. I’ve now moved on to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I actually learn something about mizzenmasts as I read, too, which is a nice fringe benefit.


LizardBreath 04.08.08 at 2:12 am

The Britishness of the author is good for a laugh at least once per book, when Reacher says something completely unAmerican. The best was a moment where he described a dark night as “black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat.” Yep. American military types say that sort of thing all the time.


LizardBreath 04.08.08 at 2:13 am

6: And they’re just about exactly that good. They’re page turners, and I’d totally buy the next on the next time I’m in an airport, but they do kind of suck.


foolishmortal 04.08.08 at 5:36 am

Popcorn SF (Bujold et al) used to work for me, until I got a bit burnt out on the genre. Now I save at least one book I really want to read for the next time I fly. I flew last week, so I don’t have a new one, but I read No Country for Old Men last week and it was quite bitching. I also pack two backups, one light and one less so, one fiction and one non. (Last week’s were an Augusten Burroughs (discount Sedaris) and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History (very good indeed)). My system works well.


SG 04.08.08 at 6:22 am

Flashman is perfect for aircraft. Unfortunately I usually finish them too fast.


onymous 04.08.08 at 7:21 am

I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami books on airplanes. They’re fun light reading, although they do get rather repetitive, and certain hipsterish types have the annoying illusion that they are Fine Literature.


Guano 04.08.08 at 8:49 am

In “Echo Burning” it isn’t just one of the cops or FBI agents that turns out to be bad: it’s all of them. In fact Childs/Reacher has little time for most of the Texans in the story. The only characters that get sympathetic treatment are some Mexicans; a liberal, vegetarian, Jewish, lesbian lawyer; and a woman of Mexican descent who is accused of murdering her Texan husband. The Texan establishment figures have a secret history of murdering Mexican immigrants and are (at the time of the story) blackmailing each about this. Reacher says that they’re all worse than cockroaches. In short it’s a rattling good yarn that confirms all my prejudices about Texas: a must-read!


No one 04.08.08 at 10:04 am

you forgot to mention Reacher ALWAYS gets a strong-willed woman (except for echo burning) who is attracted to his taciturn toughness. And at the end he always leaves her. But most of the time she is ok with it: she accepts that he is a roamer who can’t be tied down….


ajay 04.08.08 at 1:41 pm

8: Dick van Dyke. That’s all I’m going to say.


BKN 04.08.08 at 2:51 pm

“What to do on planes, apart from sleep, follow the route on the screen or go deaf trying to hear to movie soundtrack?”

How about sweat, dig one’s nails into the armrest, and pray to a god one doesn’t really believe in to allow the plane to land safely? That keeps me pretty busy for any flight of four hours or less.


David Margolies 04.08.08 at 5:00 pm

A typical Reacher scene: Reacher is handcuffed to a chair in a room with three bad guys. 2-3 pages later, he is walking out, the bad guys dead or dying. And it’s at least locally believable.

What I like best about the novels are the (real? pseudo? who knows?) tactical insights. In the same novel he has to cross a thinly guarded (one man every 100 yards) defensive line. Surprising and killing a guard is no problem and the next guards are too far away to notice the event, but there are vultures flying about and as soon as there is a body, they will congregate and _that_ will alert the guards down the line. I never would have had that thought.

Reacher is always thinking about the situation and his thoughts have this (superficial at least) tactical insight which is interesting and unexpected. He may be wrong or misguided but you never think “no stupid why did you do that?” or “how could you not see that?”.

Next one (‘Nothing to Lose’) is out in June. Can’t wait.

Also good in this regard (expressed thoughts about what is going on that are clever and interesting and for all I know right) is Jeffrey Deaver (Lincoln Rhyme novels and others) though his body count is ridiculously high.


Matthew 04.08.08 at 6:19 pm

A similar series is the John Rain series by Barry Eisler. Lots of tactical ‘insight.’ The author seems to make an effort to authenticate the behaviors of a professional assassin. There are some time details problems (ex Army ranger, Viet Nam), is running around as a young assassin / hipster (There are some passing references to tactical issues because of slower reaction time).
Not great literature, but better than gripping the arm rests for 3 hours.


The Modesto Kid 04.08.08 at 6:35 pm

You guys’ve got to get some children — taking care of them is the perfect airline diversion, you will have no attention left for being bored with.


Flippanter 04.08.08 at 9:09 pm

18: The Rain books are entertaining reads, though the immediacy of the first-person “And then…, and then…” tends to leave me surprised at the end at how readily I’ve identified with a man who kills noncombatants without noticeable remorse.


chris armstrong 04.09.08 at 9:54 am

I’ve recently discovered the ‘crime’ novels of the French writer Daniel Pennac (though I read them in English), and they have the great airport-related virtue that you can read one, two or three pages at odd moments, smile, put them away, and pick them up again when you have a minute. They’re very tightly constructed, and well written, but the short chapters also work like comic vignettes. And very funny ones.

re: 12 on Murakami – glad it’s not just me, then!


Martin Wisse 04.09.08 at 11:04 am

17: I like the term “locally believable”.

The best books to read on airplane flights and I guess this would be especially true for longhaul flights is one of those fat fantasies, like Steven Erickson’s novels. Try and read those in a single flight.


JRosen 04.09.08 at 1:17 pm

Once or twice a year my work put me on planes every day for a couple of weeks, sometimes in the US, sometimes in Europe or East Asia. I traveled with group and we used buy “airport novels” and then trade them. Alas, the formulas wore thin after a few years…it seemed to me that there were perhaps half-a-dozen standard elements that would get rehashed and remixed over and over again, including a three-page sex scene that would occur roughly 55% of the way through. The true sign of quality occurred when I could get 60 pages or so into one of these things before I realized that I had read it before.

Location has also its influence. After I retired, I took some solo trips to places where I had worked (when the dollar still bought something) and one of these was Paris. I spent some days in the antiquities section of the Louvre which I had never had time to see before. (This was about the time of the looting of the National Museum in Iraq, and I wanted to see some ancient artifacts while they still were available. My main impression was that our present-day religions are really late-comers to human history.)

At DeGaulle Airport on the way back to Boston, I picked up the “DaVinci Code” for the flight, and was hooked into it by the opening, set where I had been literally standing a few days before. So passed a reasonably entertaining few hours.

Years later, when the movie came out, I reread the book, and was appalled by how bad it was…I actually preferred “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” which I had read years before, also on a trans-Atlantic flight home.

I am no literary snob, but I like my light entertainments entertaining. I still find rereading a Dorothy Sayers mystery, even when I know the outcome, more rewarding than any number of pre-programmed — swear that some of these are plotted with a computer program — potboilers. They are the literary equivalent of a Philip Glass symphony… a few familiar ideas pounded, hashed, rehashed, and regurgitated in an unappetizing mess.

This rant is getting out of hand. Count me among the ones who see the end of civilization as we know it, and leave it at that.


aisling 04.10.08 at 11:50 am

Check out Robert Harris’s novel ‘Imperium’ . Read it on a plane from Sydney to London recently. Charts the rise of Cicero in Ancient Rome and is full of really gripping political intrigue along the way. Best Airport book I’ve read for ages.

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