A woman. A murder. A mode of public transportation. Paula Hawkins put the formula on rails in 2015’s The Girl on the Train. Ruth Ware took it out to sea in 2016’s The Woman in Cabin 10. It was only a matter of time before somebody gave it wings.
In Chris Bohjalian’s expertly turned thriller The Flight Attendant (Doubleday, 354 pp., ★★★ out of four), the woman is Cassie, a flight attendant whose hard-partying ways are degenerating into alcoholism as she exits her 30s.
During a layover in Dubai, a blackout-drunk liaison with a hedge-fund manager she met in first class leads to some familiar morning-after regrets. And then worse: She notices her hookup has had his throat slashed in bed.
Was the murderer the mysterious woman she blurrily remembers visiting the suite? Has Cassie been set up for the crime? Might she be so out of control that she committed the murder herself? After all, from public drunken bikini-shedding to petty theft, she’s become addicted to antics that are “dangerous and self-destructive and just a little bit sick.”
Bohjalian lets Cassie torment herself for a time, but it’s soon clear that the killer was a Russian assassin hired by one of the fund’s wronged investors. Cassie has been oblivious not just to the harm she’s been doing to herself with alcohol, but to a complex network involving American spies, Russian oligarchs, chemical weapons and Cassie’s family and co-workers. Cassie was lucky to escape unharmed in Dubai, but the killer is determined not to let her luck last long.
This is Bohjalian’s 20th novel, and he’s developed a graceful hand at thriller mechanics, smoothly shifting from Cassie’s private paranoia to the intricacies of spycraft and mercenaries to the public tabloid sensation she’s become. (The term “Tart Cart Killer” goes viral.)
He’s back-loaded the story with twists, from ones that were hinted at early to left-field surprises. And the brisk and busy ending is a fireworks show of redemption, revelation and old-fashioned gunplay.
That knack for speedy narrative can be a fault at times: Scenes from the assassin’s perspective are relatively underdrawn, and for all the globetrotting the characters do, from New York to Dubai to Rome, there’s little vivid scenery to take in.
But Bohjalian clears room in this no-nonsense narrative for moments of humor and sensitivity. He’s done his homework on the lives of flight attendants, and the abuse and absurdity they often face. (Where do you keep somebody who’s died mid-flight? What to do with a toddler urinating into an airsickness bag?)
It’s Cassie, though, where he’s at his best, as she goes through the push and pull of acknowledging and denying her addiction. “She liked herself best when she was tipsy,” he writes. “Her eyes looked a little more wanton and her lips a little more inviting when she was just starting to leave the sadness of sobriety behind.”
In that regard, it’s an assured novel about reckoning not just with some ruthless bad guys, but private sadness as well.