When the next 9/11-style terrorist attack strikes the U.S., the plot may include bringing down commercial airliners, but it won't be led by Osama bin Laden. Instead, the attack will be masterminded by some guy more like Dilbert.
That's the premise, anyway, of a preposterous new techno-thriller by longtime Portland-area newspaperman Dana Haynes.
Under the more hard-boiled pseudonym Conrad Haynes, the same author penned a snappy trilogy of paperback murder mysteries back in the late 1980s, featuring a bibulous, tweedy professor at a fictional Portland college fashioned after Haynes' alma mater, Lewis & Clark College. Now, 20 years later, Haynes wants to upgrade from coach to first class with Crashers (Minotaur Books, 340 pages, $24.99), a summer blockbuster with a 100,000-copy first printing and a publicity budget to match.
Dennis Silverman, a cubicle drone for a high-tech company in Beaverton, has figured out a way to crash jumbo jets with an infrared signal from a laptop. His first target, a jetliner taking off from PDX, goes down at a turf farm north of Salem. Soon a "Go-Team" of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board is winging its way westward to the Rose City, led by a pathologist who happens to be attending a medical conference at OHSU when news of the crash breaks.
The familiar metro-area settings add color but sometimes at the expense of making any sense. Silverman is supposedly so clueless about what it takes to get ahead at the office that his mother calls him every day with unwanted career advice, and yet he pulls down a big enough salary to afford a half-million-dollar condo in the Pearl District.
The first three-quarters of Crashers reads like an episode of Nova, with NTSB investigators meticulously sifting aircraft debris and performing autopsies, interwoven with a parallel plot in which a Lebanese expatriate working for the FBI infiltrates an Irish terrorist cell that may be linked to the crash. The reader's pulse quickens only after investigators begin to suspect sabotage—just as a second airliner carrying the terrorists' real target, a delegation of Irish diplomats, leaves New York bound for L.A.
To call Haynes' characters "caricatures" would be to damn with faint praise: These people are full-blown cartoons. In addition to the evil Dilbert mastermind, the Go-Team is assembled by an Asian-American Emma Peel (the comparison is Haynes') who dresses and is married to a pilot just like the stylish heroine from The Avengers. The pathologist in charge of the investigation is a Texas redneck who delivers lines like "Officer, arrest his ass." There's even a Republican congressman being blackmailed for his sexual peccadilloes with underage boys.
For all its high-tech wizardry, the plot of Crashers turns on a telephone number written inside a gum wrapper. Who, in an age of speed dial and programmable cell phones, writes down phone numbers on gum wrappers, especially if they're international terrorists? If foiling the next 9/11 hinges on America's enemies making stupid mistakes like this, we're doomed.
Dana Haynes appears at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 4 pm Saturday, June 26. Free.