“The Flight Attendant” opens with a doozy — dare I say a killer? — of a hangover scene.
Cassandra “Cassie” Bowden is a seasoned survivor when it appears to the aftereffects of binge drinking and random hookups. A gorgeous single woman in her late 30s, Cassie enjoys the off-duty perks of her job as a flight attendant. A fistful of Advil and a shower and she’s ready to step back into her slightly crumpled uniform. But one fateful morning in a hotel room in Dubai puts a dead stop to Cassie’s fancy-free lifestyle.
The scene teasingly unfolds over the first five pages of the novel: the harsh morning light, the parched sourness of Cassie’s mouth, the dizzy recollections of a passionate night spent with the hedge fund manager named Alex she met on the flight from New York. Cassie turns to look at the man in the bed beside her:
“For a split second, her mind registered only the idea that something was wrong. It may have been the body’s utter stillness, but it may also have been the way she could sense the amphibian cold. But then she saw the blood. . . . She saw his neck, . . . how the blood had geysered onto his chest and up against the bottom of his chin, smothering the black stubble like honey.”
The slow-motion getaway that plays out over the next five chapters is particularly excruciating, but anxiety-prone readers will have to remind themselves to breathe for pretty much the entirety of this novel.
For starters, a bloodstained Cassie has to figure out how to unobtrusively exit that room and walk back to the hotel where her flight crew will be assembling for the shuttle ride to the airport. (Step One: Place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hotel room door and take a quick shower. Step Two: Exit hotel and toss remains of the possible murder weapon — a broken Stolichnaya bottle — into trash cans along the way.) Reaching her hotel room, Cassie starts scrambling into her uniform when there’s a knock at the door. She freezes. False alarm. Fast-forward a couple of hours when her plane is mysteriously delayed on the runway. She freezes. Another false alarm. All through the multi-leg flight back to New York, Cassie is tormented by a question she can’t answer because of her drunken blackout: Did she cut Alex’s throat with that broken vodka bottle?
Filled with turbulence and sudden plunges in altitude, “The Flight Attendant” is a very rare thriller whose penultimate chapter made me think to myself, “I didn’t see that coming.” The novel — Bohjalian’s 20th — is also enhanced by his deftness in sketching out vivid characters and locales and by his obvious research into the realities of airline work. Here’s Cassie mulling over her choice to keep her expensive apartment in Manhattan, a taxi ride away from her home base of Kennedy Airport:
“She knew lots of flight attendants who would waste a valuable day off or have to get up early commuting . . . and then spend a half day or an overnight in some squalid crash pad near the airport. She’d lived in one once, the bottom bunk in a basement bedroom in a ramshackle town house in Ozone Park, Queens. There were at least a dozen other flight attendants who lived there — or, to be precise, crashed there.”
Inevitably, Alex’s body is discovered and his one-night stand with Cassie becomes public. Cassie becomes the FBI’s prime suspect and is dubbed the “Cart Tart Killer” by the tabloids. But Cassie has more to fear than nasty nicknames or even jail time. As her memory of that misbegotten night improves, Cassie remembers details about another woman — some kind of business associate of Alex’s — who visited the hotel room and knocked back vodka while remaining unnervingly sober. Working a flight to Rome, Cassie is certain she spots that woman in an airport line. And, what’s with the shady Russian business connections Alex might have had?
“The Flight Attendant” is the ultimate airplane book, and not just because of its name: entertaining and filled with inside info on the less glamorous aspect of flight crew’s lives, it may even make you more politely attentive the next time you’re asked to listen to that in-flight lecture on emergency water landings.