Initially a straightforward investigation into the identity of “D.B. Cooper”—the anonymous perpetrator of the only unsolved American airline hijacking—Geoffrey Gray’s Skyjack follows a pattern similar to David Fincher’s Zodiac, as a crime with major iconic significance continues to linger unsolved, deranging everyone who tries to crack it. While many books have been published about the case, they’ve mostly been written by people trying to prove that one suspect or another was the real criminal. Gray instead pursues all the threads and comes up short.
The tone is established via a paranoid epigraph from Richard Nixon: “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy. They are using any means. We are going to use any means.” The opening third reconstructs the actual hijacking of a Northwest Orient 727 going from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971, an event unfolding against widespread turmoil in the airline industry. Boeing had fired half its workforce after launching the risky 747, Northwest Orient had just been shaken by a strike, and planes were being hijacked worldwide once a week. With the recession still on, airlines were refusing to pay to install metal detectors, and Gray claims they instead made stewardesses “the new panacea; they’ve become sex objects, redirecting passengers’ fears. At Southwest, the stews wear white leather boots with porn-star laces and tangerine hot pants.”
Details and context like that put Gray’s recreation of events above the average. The success of the rest of the book depends on readers’ willingness to accept the tone of sweaty paranoia coating much of the prose. “Please, Tina, Please,” Gray begs while hoping for a phone call back from a key witness. “I send her telepathic messages, mental beams aimed to direct her hands to her telephone receiver.” Passages like this pop up regularly in various shades of purple, sympathetically aligning the author with the many people haunted by the case.
Gray offers Cooper as a refracting lens for a diverse group of people, many traumatized by their experiences in the 1960s and ’70s, from suspects like Bobby/Barbara Dayton to Jerry Thomas, a Vietnam veteran who’s spent 22 consecutive years combing the patch of forest where the FBI concluded Cooper landed after parachuting from the plane he hijacked. (That landing site could’ve been wrong.) Taken together, the period-sharp details and increasingly outlandish tangles of futile theorizing create a momentum of their own. In the absence of conclusive evidence for any suspect, this panoramic overview has its own kind of downbeat satisfaction.