on 19 August 2011
SKYJACK: THE HUNT FOR D.B. COOPER
by Geoffrey Gray
"I am on a plane and I am thinking of the Pulitzer prize. What is the prize? Is there a trophy? A plaque? Anything I'll be able to keep? A check to cash? And how will I apply? Or will they just know about my exposé unmasking the real D.B. Cooper as bashful Northwest purser Ken Christiansen? And how should the story start? (p. 87)
This is a perfectly representative paragraph from Geoffrey Gray's new book on D.B. Cooper - the man who hijacked an airplane flying from Portland, Oregon on November 24th, 1971; demanded and succeeded in taking $200,000 from an airline, and then parachuted into oblivion over rural South Washington state. The D.B. Cooper story is endlessly fascinating; the cult legend who was never caught has inspired annual celebrations, novels, and a litany of folk songs amongst other things (I own a D.B. Cooper t-shirt). The story is also a great case study for unsolved crime sleuths (D.B. Cooper the basis for one of the best segments featured on the classic Unsolved Mysteries series from the 1990s). Gray's book is the latest offering on the story and, unfortunately, ends up more concerned about Mr. Gray and his career than D.B. Cooper himself.
The following points strike me as to why this book fails:
1. The writing style is a shorthand, journalistic style. This style is used either for taking notes (that would be embellished later, before publishing) or for a film pitch, to create a sense of suspense in short timeframe. This style does not work in fiction or a historical narrative which is what I presumed this book (at least ostensibly) was to be about. Expect a frequent sentence length of no more than five or six words long.
2. It is littered with tiresome question marks throughout the text. Gray seems unsure of himself, the whole time.
3. The unbearable self indulgence of Gray. By page 119 he has already mentioned three times his wish for a Pulitzer with this book. This sort of nonsense is completely uninteresting. However it could be used as a not-so-subtle commentary on D.B. Cooper investigators, who are alleged to be out for their own fame.
4. The use of convenient but utterly weak points of interest that are used as circumstantial evidence, e.g. on p. 29 D.B. suspect, Kenny Christiansen's ruminations on a millionaire enjoying his millions and being paid to do a military test jump previous to the 1971 skyjacking.
5. The text is frequently jarring, jumping from 1970s to the 2000s to the 1980s or anywhere in between.
6. The book is short yet dwells, however briefly, on completely unrelated topics, such as Bobby Kennedy's tie or worst of all on p. 44 alluding to 9/11 terrorist attacks - "... With a hijacker at the controls, a domestic airplane becomes its own bomb. Thousands could die."
7. Dubious points of information thrown into the mix, e.g. on p. 21 how a passenger on the hijacked plane transports blood on refrigerated trucks, the blood samples coming from junkies who use the money from donating blood to feed their habit. This is quite dubitable and what's more there is no footnote or reference point to back it up. Because of this particular point's weakness and irrelevancy why is it still included?
8. For a book about an historical event and one that relies on investigation reliant on evidence, the referencing system is a joke. Also the inside covers featuring aviation maps of Portland and Seattle approaches are not revealing in anyway and unhelpful to the untrained aviation map reader. It smacks of "throwing it in there just for the sake of it."
Gray does hit some right notes along the way and reveals information I had not known before, such as D.B. suspect Christiansen's homosexuality, and flight stewardess Tina Mucklow becoming a nun, as well as painting an interesting picture of the rampant and outrageous sexism in the airline industry in the early 1970s (probably the best part of the book, and something which has nothing to do with the D.B. Cooper mystery.) But in trying to uncover the milieu of the 1970s he goes overboard with other points, especially on pages 31- 32 about returning Vietnam veterans. For a short book these asides are not merited.
Gray manages - whether inadvertently or on purpose - to reveal why several suspects made (false) admissions to being D.B. Cooper; they were damaged people with something to pretend, or had simply lost their marbles. The end of the book, the Curse section, was interesting only so far as the D.B. hunters involved had made their own story, D.B. takes somewhat of a back seat with these shenanigans. The book's end will certainly infuriate many readers, but for the sidetrack that Gray had taken throughout the book I think it's actually fitting. This book is not about sober, dispassionate investigation into the D.B. Cooper mystery, it is about Geoffrey Gray trying to make a grand scoop with the D.B. story. If you did not realise that, please know it before you buy the book. If I had known that before I (pre)ordered it I might have changed my mind.
There's yet to be a definitive text on D.B. Cooper, so let the story roll on. Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper I suspect will fade to obscurity soon enough.
on 13 August 2011
Geoffrey Gray does a good job of relating the era of skyjackings. Even those of us who lived through it can forget how prevalent skyjacking was. The writing is done well, in the beginning. The story is made interesting, the passengers and the crew of the plane Cooper was on are told well.
My edition had no pictures. I hope this is ramified in future ones, we want to see these people and even at one point Gray explains how he is looking at photos, he sees sadness and then, "I now see a quirk". How are we to understand this?
From about page 27 the author becomes unclear in some of his explanations. For example, he tells how the main `suspect' he has for Cooper was a paratrooper and in WWII his equipment weighed 100 pounds and his fellow paratroopers had to push him on the plane, was he scared or too small to carry the load? We never know.
Other characters are introduced as the book progresses and we have to start assuming who they are, because there is no introduction or explanation. The timeline also jumps around - back and forth. It becomes a confusing layout with tales of a childhood then a statement will pop in, he was on furlough...What? We are left to wonder where that came in.
At the end of the book more and more characters are inserted without explanation and then seemingly every conspiracy theory is given, even one that suggests the clip on tie left on the plane was Bobby Kennedy's, or the whole incident was staged to persuade legislators to pass stricter laws for airplane security.
This book starts well with such promise, then slides down hill with the `Cooper curse' and the crazies that follow the stories and all the conspiracies of D. B. Cooper.