October 14, 1991 12:00 PM

by Ken Follett

It was meant to be a flight to freedom. A Pan American Clipper, leaving Southampton in England, heading for the apparent safety of the New York shore. It was 1939, and for the passengers boarding the Clipper, it was one last attempt to escape the growing Nazi threat.

To heighten the drama behind this fictional final flight, Follett populates his novel with a miniseries-rich international cast of characters, among them Lady Margaret Oxenford, spoiled and selfish daughter of a British fascist; Harry Marks, a jewel thief who relies more on luck than on skill; Diana Lovesey, who can’t decide whom to live with—her husband or her lover, who are both conveniently on the flight; Nancy Lenehan, a career-driven woman looking to boot her brother out of the family shoe business; and flight engineer Eddie Deakin, concerned only about the safety of his pregnant wife, a hostage held by a gang trying to keep the Clipper from reaching its final destination.

Follett (Eye of the Needle, The Pillars of the Earth) weaves from one character to another, linking them when possible, never losing sight of the main mission—to escape the coming war.

Night over Water is a first-class adventure, a Christie mystery set at 20,000 feet. Follett’s best novel since The Key to Rebecca, it is a slick, 1930s melodrama with all the prerequisites of the genre—passion (there’s enough sex on this plane to steam up every window), mystery (will Lenehan lose the company to her brother? will Eddie Deakin risk the passenger’ lives to save his wife? will Diana Lovesey be the first woman to sleep with two men on a transatlantic flight?) and, of course, there’s plenty of danger (take your pick—the Nazis, gangsters or airline food).

To put it another way, every flight ought to be as entertaining as this book. (Morrow, $23)

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