The Taking of MH370 | Book Review


A little after midnight on Saturday, March 8, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport for its six-hour flight to Beijing Capital International Airport. It made its last contact with Malaysian air traffic control 38 minutes after takeoff, then dropped off ATC radar. It was tracked by Malaysian military radar for another hour before flying out of Malaysian-monitored airspace. The plane’s satellite communication system continued to make hourly “handshakes” with an Inmarsat satellite until 8:19 a.m. The plane has not been seen or heard from since, its 227 passengers and 12 crew presumed dead.

International authorities eventually concluded that the airline crashed into the Southern Indian Ocean, the crash officially ruled an accident. This conclusion was reached by a highly technical analysis of the plane’s satellite metadata. Malaysia, China, and Australia conducted massive maritime searches for the airline beginning in 2014, but ended those searches in January 2017. A private company reopened the search for six months in 2018, but like the previous searches, found nothing. Over the next few years, airplane debris belonging to MH370’s type of plane, a Boeing 777, was found on islands in the Western Indian Ocean or washed up on countries in East Africa. Together with the radar and satellite metadata, these debris are the only evidence of MH370’s fate.

Jeff Wise is a Harvard-educated science reporter who specializes in aviation and psychology. He has followed the disappearance of MH370 since the beginning, and in this book reaches a startling conclusion at odds with the official account: The plane didn’t crash (on accident or through a terrorist event). It was taken by Russian operatives and flown to Yubileyniy, a Russian controlled airstrip in Kazakhstan. The most likely reason for the hijacking—and hence murder of 239 souls—was to distract Western authorities from Russia’s 2014 depredations in Ukraine.

I know, I know—that’s crazy talk, right? It is a measure of Wise’s journalistic skill and aviation expertise that The Taking of MH370 carries you along with it almost to the end of the book. Wise highlights multiple anomalies in the data points acknowledged by all authorities, focusing on four in particular: (1) The satellite metadata “came out of nowhere.” For unexplained reasons, the aircraft’s satellite data unit (SDU) powered off, stopped transmitting, then sometime later rebooted and started transmitting again. Authorities have not adequately explained why this happened.

(2) The satellite metadata “transmitted an unexpected clue.” Normally, metadata does not transmit information about where and how a plane is traveling. But for technical reasons involving the SDU’s manufacturer, the age of the Inmarsat satellite, and the plane’s path along a north-south axis, its flightpath could be inferred. Wise finds this “awfully convenient.”

(3) The satellite metadata “couldn’t be cross-checked with any other evidence.” The Inmarsat data is the only hard evidence we have as to reconstruct MH370’s flight.

But (4) “when evidence later emerged that could have confirmed the turn south [instead of north to Beijing], it didn’t.” The massive years-long maritime search found no airplane. The debris that washed ashore showed evidence of being in the water for a shorter period of time than required had the plane crashed into the ocean when MH370 did. Also, debris showed up in places that were hard to reconstruct given knowledge of weather and ocean currents. And, again referring to the SDU’s reboot, Wise argues that the reboot signal contained serious anomalies never explained by authorities.

Had Wise left the matter with these anomalies, his book merely would’ve demonstrated how little we actually know about the fate of MH370, indeed, how weird reality unfortunately can be. It’s the Russia angle that pushes his book from acknowledging the weird to speculating the crazy. Think of it this way: Wise makes much of the fact that the satellite metadata pointed investigators in one direction, but the plane was never found. Fair enough, but he takes this as dispositive that the plane never went in that direction. But that’s not quite right, logically speaking. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all.

And anyway, other than speculation, what precisely is the evidence for Russian involvement? Honestly, I couldn’t see any that was persuasive. No one tracked MH370 to Kazakhstan. No satellite metadata places it in the vicinity. No satellite observed it. (And given that this is a Russian military airstrip, one assumes the U.S. is watching it closely.) I grant that Putin is a bad man and that Russia wanted to distract the West from what Russian forces were doing in Ukraine, but the fact that the story of MH370 took Ukraine off the front pages does not constitute evidence of the taking of MH370.

Indeed, the evidence Wise cites of Russia’s use of disinformation to distract its enemies and pursues its policy directives points us away from his conclusions about MH370. Toward the end of the book, Wise cites Russia’s use of disinformation in the 2016 U.S. presidential election as proof of its nefarious intent. Russia’s nefariousness, I think we can all agree, goes without saying. But here’s the problem: We know what they did and what they’re doing, right down to the name and address of the GRU officer unleashing bots on Facebook and Twitter. When Russian-backed Ukrainian forces shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 four months after MH370 disappeared, according to Wise, we could literally observe via satellite the truck that fired the missile. Given U.S. penetration of Russian intelligence operations, given our satellite observations of their military, it’s difficult for me to believe that Russia could’ve taken MH370 without the U.S. observing it. (And yes, I realize this is an absence-of-evidence argument too.)

Thus, in assessing The Taking of MH370, all I can say is that it is both fascinating and maddening. Fascinating for guiding readers through the weirdness of the data and evidence that all must use to come to a conclusion about MH370’s fate. Maddening because it lands on an explanation that, without direct evidence in its favor, grounds the event in malign human action. I don’t like the Russian government any more than Wise, but I don’t think they’re farsighted and competent enough to pull off this complex a con. Of course, the reason why conspiracy theories are so powerful is because they make tragedy explicable and therefore meaningful.

But what if the fact is simply that anomalies happen and reality is weird?

Book Reviewed
Jeff Wise, The Taking of MH370 (The Yellow Cabin Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Unlucky Woman | Book Review


Hilda Lipkind is an unlucky woman. Seven months pregnant–after three miscarriages–she is worried that her husband David is cheating on her. So, she hires Adam Lapid to track down David’s paramour. The truth, however, is more complex and results in tragedy.

The Unlucky Woman is a short story, not a novel, and a quick read. While I am a fan of the Adam Lapid mysteries, set in post-Independence Tel Aviv, I didn’t enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed the previous novels, hence the three-star rating.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, The Unlucky Woman: An Adam Lapid Short Story (Self-published, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Code of the Hills | Book Review


The Code of the Hills is the first of four (so far) crime novels by Nancy Allen featuring Elsie Arnold. It is set in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, in Barton, the seat of McCown County, for which Elsie works as a prosecuting attorney. Both the town and the county are fictional, but Allen’s portrayal of southwestern Missouri is pitch perfect, from the patois (you’uns, not y’all) to the overworked foster care system, from the poverty and meth to backcountry Pentecostals. The Baldknobbers—a vigilante group from the postbellum era—get a nod, and there’s even a jibe or two thrown in at Springfield, the third largest city in Missouri and “The Queen City of the Ozarks.”

The crime at the heart of The Code of the Hills is incest, and the mystery is whether Elsie Arnold will be able to successfully prosecute Kris Taney for it. (Even the name Taney has Ozarks resonance, by the way, since Taney County is real and has its own lake, Lake Taneycomo—for Taney County, Missouri, of course.) The witness who called in the crime—Kris’s brother Al—has disappeared. The Taney women—mom Donita, daughters Charlene, Kristy, and Tiffany—aren’t cooperating. Mom has taken up with a new beau while Dad is in jail, which Kris’s defense attorney thinks points to a setup. A key piece of evidence gets incinerated. A group of misinformed “Apostolic” Pentecostals take up Kris’s defense on the grounds of “family values,” and make Elsie’s life miserable in the process. (The scene where their itinerant pastor sets them straight in a sermon was a hoot, at least to this member of the clergy.) And Elsie’s incompetent boss—Madeleine Thompson—has it out for her. If Elsie loses the case, she loses her job.

You’ll have to read The Code of the Hills to discover the outcome. (And to find out what “the code of the hills” is.) What I liked about the novel is that it tells a story that feels like the Ozarks. If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. As a former foster parent, I’ve seen the reality of abuse and neglect, the poverty of many families, and the overwhelmed resources of the state of Missouri up close. This novel has a ring of truth to it. That’s probably because Nancy Allen is a native Missourian, former prosecuting attorney, and law professor at Missouri State University in my home town of Springfield.

I enjoyed The Code of the Hills. It kept me turning pages, which is my number-one criteria for mystery novels. So, I look forward to reading the next three novels in the series. I’m sincerely hoping Elsie Arnold comes to Springfield in one of them…

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery(New York: WitnessImpulse, 2014).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Past Tense | Book Review


Midnight Line, Lee Child’s previous Jack Reacher novel, was a page-turner, but it left me wondering whether Reacher was getting a bit old for all the action Child put him through. I gave it a four-star review, but to be honest, I promised myself I would give Child only one more chance to keep my interest in Reacher. Past Tense kept my interest.

The novel has three storylines. One, Reacher finds himself in Laconia, New Hampshire, where his dad was born and raised. The only problem? There’s little trace of Stan Reacher there. Two, while searching for records of his dad, Reacher beats up a man bullying a woman. Unfortunately, the man is connected to bad actors who come to Laconia looking to settle a score. Three, a Canadian couple find themselves stranded at a remote motel where the owner and his business partners act more than a little strange. The owner’s last name? Reacher.

As always, Child brings these storylines together in an explosive conclusion that kept me turning pages, which is the primary way I evaluate suspense novels. (I read the novel in two long sittings.)

This isn’t the best of the Reacher novels. However, it’s good enough to keep me interested through next year when, come fall, I’m sure Child will publish Reacher’s next adventure. I hope it’s set in San Diego. That’s where Reacher is heading, and lots of interesting happens in San Diego, or could happen, if Reacher were there.

Book Reviewed
Lee Child, Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel (New York: Delacorte Press, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon.com review page.

Y Is for Yesterday | Book Review


Y Is for Yesterday is the 25th installment in Sue Grafton’s long-running Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series. Kinsey is asked to investigate the blackmail of a young man just released from juvenile detention for a homicide he committed a decade earlier. As she begins to question family and friends, she uncovers a web of secrets and lies that lead to murder.

At the same time, she keeps looking over her shoulder for the serial killer who failed to silence her six months earlier and still wants revenge. (That story is told in Grafton’s previous novel, X.)

I first heard of the Kinsey Millhone mysteries while living and working in Santa Barbara, California more than ten years ago. Santa Teresa—where Kinsey lives and works as a private investigator—is a lightly fictionalized Santa Barbara, so it was easy for me to imagine her pounding the pavement in search of justice, or at least answers. I started with A Is for Alibi, got hooked instantly, and have since worked my way through the alphabet one letter at a time.

It’s hard to believe that Sue Grafton has been at this series since 1982, when A Is for Alibi was published, but I’m glad she’s persisted. This book is a page-turner, and I look forward to reading Z Is for Zero in 2019.

 

Book Reviewed:
Sue Grafton, Y Is for Yesterday (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘A Murder of Quality’ by John Le Carré


A Murder of Quality is John Le Carré’s second novel as well as the second (of seven) in which ex-spook George Smiley plays a role. When the wife of a tutor at a prestigious public school is murdered, a friend of Smiley’s asks him to look into the case. Smiley’s attention—and everyone else’s, including the reader’s—is focused on a suspect until the very end when the truth comes out. Le Carré describes A Murder of Quality as “a flawed thriller redeemed by ferocious and quite funny social comment” in the Introduction to this edition, and the book is that, although I wouldn’t say it is fully redeemed.


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Book Reviewed:
P.S. John Le Carré, A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2012; orig. 1962).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘City of Bones’ by Michael Connelly


City-of-bonesMichael Connelly, City of Bones (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

City of Bones is the eighth installment in Michael Connelly’s series of novels featuring Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch. It opens on New Years Day, when Bosch is called to a home in Laurel Canyon. A dog has found a bone, and its owner, a medical doctor, is certain that it’s human. Bosch begins to investigate and unearths the majority of a skeleton. Forensic examination reveals that the body belonged to a young male who had suffered physical abuse throughout his short life.

Within days, Bosch knows the name of the victim, Arthur Delacroix, and the year of his murder, 1980. But who killed him, and why? Connelly leads readers through Bosch’s 13-day investigation with storytelling skill, leading us down investigative rabbit trails, only to corner the killer in the last pages of the book. In addition to the identity of the killer, those 13 days uncover secrets that destroy lives and families and threaten to end Bosch’s career.

I was familiar with the plot of City of Bones before reading it. This book, along with Concrete Blonde, is the textual basis of the first season of Amazon’s Bosch series. The TV series took quite a few liberties with Concrete Blonde, but it hewed closely to the narrative of City of Bones, with a few, important exceptions. Still, it is a testament to Connelly’s storytelling skill that he captured my attention through the book despite the fact that I knew who the killer was all along.

I’ve reviewed a number of books in Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, together with books in his Mickey Halley and Terry McCaleb series. With one exception, I think each of them is well crafted and engaging. As a guy who likes to read mystery series featuring a lead character and returning cast of characters, I thoroughly enjoy Michael Connelly’s books and recommend them to people with similar tastes to mine.

Read the books in order, though. Each mystery is self-contained, but the character arc of Harry Bosch is worth making the time and effort to start from The Black Echo and work your way forward.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

 

 

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