Tuesday, May 14, 2013

OPERATION NIGHTFALL by John Miles (Jack M. Bickham) & Tom Morris

Berkley Medallion Edition
Operation Nightfall is the final of four suspense novels Jack Bickham wrote for Bobbs-Merrill’s Black Bat Mystery imprint.  It was published as by John Miles with a coauthor named Tom Morris.  I’m not familiar with Mr Morris, and to my knowledge this is Bickham’s only coauthored novel.  It was published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1975, and reissued as a mass market in April 1976 by Berkley Medallion (K3087).

Operation Nightfall is a caper novel.  It features six men—three pilots and three crew—who plan a high jacking of Atlanta International Airport.  Not an airplane departing AIA, but the entire airport.  The novel opens as a minor scam ends, and while the getaway is flawless Tom Keel is less than satisfied with the take.  It netted only a few thousand, and he wants a big score.  The kind of haul that will allow him to disappear, which is how he gets from small time crook to big time criminal.

The novel is developed in three acts, and it is executed so concisely it could easily, and should be, translated as a screenplay.  The first act is measured in days, and it slowly develops the scene, setting, and characters.  Each is introduced, with an emphasis on the three pilots, and the audience is ushered quickly to the point where the protagonists, pushed by Keel’s sense of alienation and inequity, encounter the catalyst of story—the team will either be successful in its attempt to highjack the airport, or it will fail.

The final two acts are measured in minutes beginning with the team’s arrival at AIA.  The meat of the action is in these final two acts, which makes up slightly less than 2/3rds of the novel.  The original question—succeed or fail—is in doubt throughout the climax.  And, while the structure of the novel is simple and straight forward, it doesn’t harm the story a bit.  In fact it is the purity of the plot and the targeted character development, particularly motive, which elevates Operation Nightfall from the generic to the excellent.

Although everything else works, too.  The prose is simple and sparse, which lends credibility to a plot on the outside edge of believability.  The dialogue is concise and surprisingly believable.  The characters interact with each other with a believable ease; the underlying distrust, fear, and anger shimmers with each word, but so does the reliance of each on the other.  The flying sequences tingle with a sense of reality:

“Easing over on the yoke and rudder, he cleared the tower on yet another pass and hurled the Cherokee east and then southeast.  He could see Keel out in front of him, turning over the far runway.  A little close.  Abercrombie touched the power, easing off perhaps 50 rpm; no time to look at gauges; it had to be all feel.” 

Operation Nightfall is the real deal.  It is a tightly spun suspense novel, which is entertaining and thrilling all at once.  It is an example of Jack Bickham’s best work, and it is a shame it, and much of Bickham’s other work, never obtained a larger audience.  And if there are any filmmakers in the ether, it would make a terrific film. 
A listing of Jack Bickham's Black Bat titles are here.

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