A typical reader complaint when reading a book by a historian (or any writer with a passion for researching his subject to the finest detail) is that the writer, having done all that work, then decides that the reader must be subjected to the entirety of what was discovered in the process. It tends to lead to boring books.
Weirdly, Ken Follett’s Night Over Water is a bad book full of research which isn’t a bad book because of the research. It’s a bad book because the character interactions read like a Mexican soap opera (or maybe one of the less-realistic episodes of Dallas). This may be intentional, and it may have helped the book sell (which is fine by me – I have a very strong interest in readers paying money to buy books), but I didn’t enjoy it.
What I did enjoy was the result of all that research. Follett describes the experience of being a passenger on one of the legendary Pan-Am Clippers perfectly. Not just the plane itself, but the experience and the kind of people one would find on that particular airliner (the right crowd and no crowding, as the old saying at Goodwood went). For a few hundred pages you are transported to an era that existed only a very few years, and ended when flying boats were superseded by planes that landed on runways (concrete runways were expensive to build, but a lot of them were built for WWII… and then used by commercial airliners afterwards).
The description is wonderful and evocative, and I’ll admit that the action sequence at the end is pretty good (I read James Bond books, so it’s no surprise that I enjoy a good complicated fight to end a novel).
It does leave me wondering about Follett, though. The man was once a master of fast-paced novels, but in this one, his characters are boring and unbelievable (despite their fantastic backgrounds and motivations) which makes the novel drag along. I’ve already spoken of this phenomenon when I reviewed Hornet Flight, and I’m worried to have found it here, too.
There’s another Follett in my to-be-read pile. I hope the novel is better than this one… but I also hope the history is as evocative and all-immersive. That is one thing he still does really well.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own thriller doesn’t drag along. In fact, Timeless moves through the world of Southeast Europe’s smuggling scene at a breakneck pace, pausing only for a few erotic interludes along the way. You can check it out here.