Michael F. Epstein | BookMarks: 'The Flight Attendant' is a first-class mystery

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Chris Bohjalian's twentieth novel, "The Flight Attendant" (Doubleday, 2018), is a taut mystery and spy thriller that will keep readers up late at night turning the pages until the breath-holding conclusion.

No spoiler alert is necessary since the book jacket outlines the plot in enough detail to resolve some of the most apparent mystery. Cassandra Bowden, the eponymous airline employee, has a serious dilemma. An attractive, hard-drinking, free-wheeling thirty-something flight attendant, she awakens one morning in Dubai having spent the night with a man who was seated in her first class cabin on the flight from JFK. While Cassandra slowly deals with a hangover of world class proportions and orients herself to place and time, she realizes that she has had yet another binge-drinking blackout.

She can recall nothing about parts of the previous night, and that lapse becomes the crux of the story, since she awakens next to a very dead Alex Sokolov. "And there he was. For a split second, her mind registered only the idea that something went wrong. It may have been the body's utter stillness, but it may also have been the way she could sense the amphibian cold. But then she saw the blood."

Cassie can remember the early part of the evening — the flirting on the plane, the intimate dinner, the wine and then the 120 proof aruk followed by Stoli, the intense love-making, the visit from one of Alex's business associates — but the rest of the night is a blank. As she struggles to recall the sequence of events that might have led up to Alex's murder, bits and pieces of her memory return, but the basic question remains unanswered: Did she kill Alex, and if not, who did and why was she spared? Operating from instinct and panic, she makes the first of many dubious choices. She decides not to call the police and to return to New York without telling anyone about Alex's murder. "In the end, she told herself that she did problematic things when she drank, but slashing people's throats wasn't among them. At least she didn't think it was . She was going to get as far away from Dubai as she could ." This decision begins a string of lies and deceptions that draw her ever deeper into both the mystery of Alex's death and her own dangerous situation.

The action of the novel moves quickly as Chapter 2 introduces us to the real killer, Elena, a Russian operative, and her handler, Viktor Tarkovsky, a former KGB member and now part of the Cossacks, a group of Russian nationalists committed to the return of their nation to its former status as a world power. Elena's father was a Russian secret police member and a Cossack with Viktor, but he was poisoned by his associates when they felt he was getting soft. Elena knows this but, in order to remain on good terms with Viktor, pretends to believe that her father had a stroke.

As in most spy novels, little is as it appears at first except for Cassie who is consistently drunk, irresponsible, promiscuous, and untrustworthy to her friends and her family. Her sister is so doubtful about her that she won't allow Cassie to be alone with her nephew and niece. Since the reader knows who killed Alex Sokolov by the end of the second chapter, much of the suspense in this fine novel revolves around what will happen to Cassie, and like her lawyer, the wonderfully bright and tough Ani Mouradian, I was committed to Cassie even though I didn't like her very much. It was only Bohjalian's writerly skills that kept me turning the pages as he deftly introduced surprise after surprise, swiftly moving the novel to its tense finale.

The Vermont-based Bohjalian demonstrates his skill in plot, character, voice, and place, and as usual, his background research provides fascinating details into the work of flight attendants, coroners, FBI agents, attorneys, and even spies, moles, handlers, and the rest of the cast of shady characters engaged in international intrigue and travel.

This is a fine book for an airline flight, but you might want to save it for the beach vacation this summer. It would be a bummer to have to close the book and interrupt your reading just because the flight attendant has welcomed you to your destination and announced the correct time.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at mfepstein@gmail.com

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