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Zero Separation by Philip Donlay


No-one can be sure who first said it, but the advice, “Write what you know.” tends to be associated with Mark Twain. The underlying point of this potentially sage advice is that writers can inspire their readers by their knowledge and enthusiasm for a given subject. Of course, it’s entirely possible that an enthusiast may drone on interminably, assuming the readers will be equally interested in every last detail. Alternatively, the writer may have become a little bored with the material through long association and transmit that boredom to the reader. With those caveats, it usually works out well in a novel aiming for some degree of realism. Credibility comes when the facts are accurate and the detail lovingly described. This author was a pilot until forced to retire by ill health. This loss was depressing. Now, when he writes about flying, he seems to come to life again.

My immediate problem in reading Zero Separation by Philip Donlay (Oceanview Publishing, 2013) is not knowing who anyone is. This is the third book to feature Donovan Nash who seems to dice with death on a regular basis, flying into a hurricane in the first book and trying to land a heavily damaged airliner in the second. For once, I find the structure of the book unhelpful. Usually the author inserts enough information as we go along so that the reader will not be taken by surprise when obviously important characters have more to them than at first sight meets the eye. A further slightly strange element is that we’ve already been through two books and only now come to the major part of Donovan Nash’s backstory. Without having read the previous two novels, I can’t say why all this never came up before but, with an inner circle only too aware of his previous identity, you would think some of this would have been discussed — perhaps it was.

Philip Donlay — his expertise on flying shines forth

Philip Donlay — his expertise on flying shines forth

Anyway, this is all speculative and not relevant to the main business of reviewing this book. I can’t say I like many of the people on display. Not of course that readers are expected to like the characters in a book. We’re all familiar with the idea of the anti-hero. Nor am I predisposed to dislike the supremely wealthy simply because they are rich. But I worry their wealth distorts their values. Here’s a man who gets into trouble and, instead of toughing it out, stages his own death and goes through reconstructive facial surgery. Naturally, he keeps all his money. So the plan calls for him to crash a plane. This must give rise to a false claim on the insurance policy covering loss of the company asset. It would look all wrong if no claim was made. Naturally he’s declared dead. Almost certainly, this would trigger multiple false claims on life insurance policies. He would be covered both as an individual and as a key man in his company. By any standards, this makes him a coward in running away and a fraudster of epic proportions in hiding all his wealth and creating a false identity that enables him to use the money, including the death benefits, after he’s been declared dead. There may also be multiple offences committed in relation to tax and estate duty. Of course, several others are involved in this criminal conspiracy. Curiously none of them seem to have a strategy for running away should the scam be disclosed. Only our hero and his wife have devised a bolt hole with new identities and some of, if not all, the money. That leaves the others to go to jail and the state to confiscate as much of the money and assets as it can find in civil and criminal penalties. As I say, none of these people have praiseworthy values.

As to the rest of the book, it’s easy to crystalise why I find it deeply unsatisfying. The previous two books deal with a pilot who has to use his skills in situations growing out of the accident of where he happens to be. Anyone with piloting experience who is on an aeroplane when the pilots are seriously injured or killed would have to take over and try to land. We overlook the coincidence it just happens to be our hero who gets the chance to star and let him get on to save the day. But this is slightly different and the difference is critical. As is always required, he’s in the wrong place when an aeroplane is stolen. That’s just bad luck and, in almost every case, he would be sent off home. But an FBI agent blackmails him into helping her track down who might be responsible. OK so here’s my problem. Ever since 9/11, there has been paranoia about people in a position to crash aeroplanes on to population centres. Consequently all professional pilots go through intensive screening which, not unnaturally, includes fingerprinting and criminal background checks. I find it inconceivable that this man could have avoided detection by the Department of Homeland Security, the Transport Security Administration and every other agency with an interest in keeping American airspace safe. That this lowly FBI agent can immediately identify our hero from a partial print when no-one else has noticed this individual didn’t exist twenty years ago is absurd.

I could go on dismantling the plot but, from this brief sample of analysis, you have an insight into the problems. Under normal circumstances, I would dismiss this book as completely worthless. Indeed, a few passages jar with slightly awkward word selection. But I come back to the last quarter of the book which, as a thriller, is excellent. Applying Mark Twain’s advice, Philip Donlay writes in a different class when he writes about flying. He knows the business and this sequence is ingenious to say the least. Even the final scenes on the ground maintain the high standard to a satisfying conclusion to the thriller element. So Zero Separation, for a host of reasons, has zero credibility as a plot set-up but manages to finish with a magnificent flourish.

For a review of the next in the series, see Deadly Echoes.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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