Sometimes I wonder why people still bother to read thrillers set during World War II. Then I read a news item about our intelligence-starved Army giving the boot to half a dozen specialists in Arabic languages because they're gay. Or I learn that Tommy Franks has been running the Army's operations in Afghanistan from…Florida. Or my brother, the genius researcher, tells me his biological warfare grant proposal will be on hold for months while the Homeland Security crew takes over from the National Institute of Health. And, suddenly, I remember why we like to read about covert operations in World War II --- intelligent people were involved.
In fact, intelligent people were actively recruited for important posts in World War II. Especially in Britain, some of the best spies and spymasters were intellectuals, professors, artists and other questionable characters. Even here in the United States, a liberal arts major from Princeton with artistic tendencies could become a hero.
In HORNET FLIGHT, Ken Follett takes us back to the last war when brains and resourcefulness mattered more than technology and callousness. The mechanics of the plot couldn't be simpler: The Germans are blowing RAF bombers out of the sky in record numbers. Churchill is frantic --- England is preparing its largest aerial attack, and the country cannot afford to lose half its planes. Clearly, the Germans have some sort of tracking device. What is it? Where is it? And can it be destroyed before the big bombing raid?
Professionals are enlisted. Bad things happen to them. Some you see coming, most you don't. In the end, it falls to an 18-year-old Danish teenager and his plucky girlfriend to save the day in a Hornet Moth, a plane so small you'd think twice about getting into it, much less using it as a vehicle to save a nation. I won't spoil the ingredients of their final challenge, except to say you will learn more about engines than most mechanics learn in technical school.
And the writing? Seventeen bestsellers have made Ken Follett a master of the quick turn, the quirky detail, the research that pays off. Four hundred pages fly by. And as they do, see if you too don't occasionally think: You know, this guy is wasting himself on fiction, we really could use him in the War Against Terror.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on November 25, 2003