Best Airport Novels?
May 13, 2014 8:49 AM   Subscribe

I read a lot of Classic and contemporary literary fiction and am interested in reading some books purely for distraction and fun.

The wikipedia entry for Airport Novel pretty much defines what I'm looking for.

I'm looking for something with almost no literary value at all. A paperback novel that is fun, thrilling, and an overall blast to read. I need authors who see their jobs as functional not artistic. Something to distract me from coworker banter during downtime at work.

I have almost no preferences and am willing to try anything as long as it fits under the Airport Novel heading, but I do have a strong affinity for certain settings which are as follows:

Late 1800's gilded age America
Belle Epoque Paris
Dark Victorian England
Turn of the Century Main Street USA
The Roaring Twenties
The Paris of the Lost Generation
Classic 30's to 50's Hollywood
Film Noir
WWII America and Europe
50's Suburbia

I'm not interested in hard fantasy or sci-fi but am willing to take elements of both in small measure. Basically if it would make a good popcorn movie in the 90's, then I'm interested.
posted by R.F.Simpson to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea why (maybe I read it at an impressionable age), but whenever I think Airport Novel, I think of Tommy Thompson's amazing novel Celebrity.

It's just wonderful.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 8:54 AM on May 13, 2014

Response by poster: Just to add to the settings I listed, I also love the Cold War
posted by R.F.Simpson at 8:54 AM on May 13, 2014

Best answer: Check out the Hard Case Crime imprint. It's a mix of out-of-print and unpublished stuff by classic writers and new stuff that's very noir-inflected.
posted by Etrigan at 8:55 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

For airport fiction it doesn't get any better than the Jack Reacher series by Lee Childs. Easy reads, no need to read in order, and plenty of action. Although you will get sick of reading certain phrases after a while.

"Reacher said nothing.'
posted by Sternmeyer at 9:14 AM on May 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Not really airport novel, I don't think, but it sounds like you'd probably like Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series.
posted by naturalog at 9:17 AM on May 13, 2014

It's better written than airport books, but for engrossing entertainment, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is my favorite. Also the All Souls trilogy--like Twilight with PhDs.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:19 AM on May 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't classify him as "airport" but John D MacDonald did write a couple of thick, compulsively readable, non-Travis McGee novels, Condominium and Barrier Island. Bonus: he's a good writer.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:20 AM on May 13, 2014

I don't know what it was, but I couldn't get through Jonathan Strange to save my life. And I was a critical theory major for a brief time in college :P

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova (sort of a Dracula thing) and The Eight, by Katherine Neville, are great. Both of them have a globetrotting-around-Europe-to-solve-a-historical-conundrum theme, with some familial tension built in. I wouldn't recommend either of the followups, though (Kostova's The Swan Thieves or Neville's sequel The Fire).
posted by Madamina at 9:26 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I find all of Carl Hiassen's books compulsively readable and extremely funny. His voice might not appeal to everyone, but here's a representative chapter. You should know within a dozen paragraphs or so if it's what you're looking for.

Twilly sat down and ended the passage with the words 'ankle-deep in the blood of fools!' After a moment's thought, he changed it to 'ankle-deep in the evanescing blood of fools!'

He stuck the pencil behind one ear and rose.

Dr Boston said: "Done? Good. Now please share your story with the rest of us."

"That'll take some time, the whole story will."

"Mr Spree, just tell us why you're here."

"I blew up my uncle's bank."

Twilly's classmates straightened and turned in their seats.

"A branch," Twilly added, "not the main office."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:27 AM on May 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

A few authors/books that might fit the bill:

Jeffrey Archer
Dennis Lehane - The Given Day (although I love all of his books)
Stephen King - 11/22/63
Stieg Larson
Jo Nesbø
Brandon Sanderson - Mistborn (Fantasy)
posted by backwards guitar at 9:30 AM on May 13, 2014

Yes to Lee Child and John D. MacDonald. And I'd add a thriller author not often mentioned but excellent: Thomas Perry. Really, one of the best. Also Jonathan Kellerman. All are quick slick reads, but highly intelligent and well-written. Oh, and James Lee Burke.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:33 AM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with Stephen King, Stieg Larson, Denis Lehane. I also think that David Liss works, and Imogen Robertson's Paris Winter is a very fun mystery set in Belle Epoque Paris. Jeffrey Archer's mysteries are great airport reads. The early Laurie R King Russell/Holmes books are pretty popcorn and set around the right time. And I really enjoy Donna Andrews and her cozy mystery Meg Langslow books.

I can't really disassociate airport/beach reads with mysteries for some reason.
posted by jeather at 9:36 AM on May 13, 2014

Ken Follett's "Eye of the Needle" is a classic WWII spy-novel-cum-airport-paperback.
posted by stinkfoot at 9:48 AM on May 13, 2014

While I do think it has literary value, I read Gone Girl on a trip and it was perfect.
posted by radioamy at 9:50 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh also, all the old Clive Cussler novels, up until the mid-90's or so.

Dang- most of Michael Chrichton's too (a lot of these were made into movies but the books are all way better and different, yo).
posted by stinkfoot at 10:00 AM on May 13, 2014

I discovered Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus in an airport bookstore and suspect, based on your list of plus things, that you would enjoy it as much as I did.
posted by Naberius at 10:05 AM on May 13, 2014

Shoot dang, can't forget Tom Clancy and John Grisham (essential airport/beach reads IMO).
posted by stinkfoot at 10:07 AM on May 13, 2014

Two old-school favorites:

Valley of the Dolls
The Godfather
posted by JanetLand at 10:09 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you would *love* Sarah Waters, especially since so many are set in Victorian England. They're very smart, fun page-turners - the best type of popcorn novel.

A few favorites: Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Little Stranger.
posted by susanvance at 10:16 AM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Two great paperbacks that are now sadly known for their questionable film adaptations: Planet of the Apes, Donnie Brasco. You could read either in one sitting on a longer flight.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:50 AM on May 13, 2014

Donna Tartt; any of her novels.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:52 AM on May 13, 2014

Late 1800's gilded age America:

I thoroughly enjoyed Anna Godberson's The Luxe and its sequels Envy and Splendor. They're fun, reasonably well-written page-turners.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:04 AM on May 13, 2014

Late last year I read all of Childs' Jack Reacher books, and they were fun reads, so I second those. I would add that 61 Hours (#14) should be read before Never Go Back (#18, most recent, though it appears there's another in the offing for August). It's not critical, but he speaks on the phone with someone in 61 that he later meets in person in Never. That's just about the only bit of continuity that should dictate the read order that I can think of. In case you care, the recent Tom Cruise movie was based on #9, One Shot.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:23 AM on May 13, 2014

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility
posted by BibiRose at 11:25 AM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Check out the English translations of some of the Arsene Lupin stories (available on Project Gutenberg). They were written before airports existed, but they're generally entertaining, somewhat satirical mysteries set in Belle Époque Paris.
posted by littlegreen at 11:31 AM on May 13, 2014

Seconding the recommendation for the Rivers of London books.

I'm a big fan of Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series of murder mysteries, and my favorite popcorn read this year (so far) is Patrick Lee's Runner.
posted by evoque at 11:32 AM on May 13, 2014

Alan Furst's "Night Soldiers" spy novels, all set in the vicinity of WWII. Though the plots span Europe, they all have a scene in a particular Paris bistro in which an exciting event of the first novel leaves its impression on the other characters thanks to a carefully preserved shattered mirror and bullet hole.

The first novel is "Night Soldiers," and is about an actual intelligence officer, a Romanian kid recruited into the KGB. But most of them are about relatively ordinary men, sometimes ex-military, who find themselves pulled into the role of a spy. They're not exactly pure popcorn reading, but they're pretty darn engrossing.

Seconding Donna Tartt. Not long ago I finished "The Goldfinch," and was a wonderful ride. The woman puts out one novel every 10 years, and each one of them is exquisite and memorable. I hope she's writing other books under a pen-name and there's more of her wonderful stuff out there.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:32 AM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oops, I forgot there was another Luxe sequel, Rumors--it comes before Envy.

The Roaring Twenties:

Since you said you were OK with a bit of fantasy/supernatural, I'd also recommend Libba Bray's The Diviners; it's set in 1920s Manhattan and features a young flapper sent to live with her uncle--by day, he is a university professor; at night, he investigates serial killings with suspected occult connections. The only downside is it's part of a planned series (the ending is very much of the "stay tuned" variety) and the next one doesn't come out till next year, apparently.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:55 AM on May 13, 2014

> I find all of Carl Hiassen's books compulsively readable and extremely funny.

Yeah, try him out if you haven't already. It's a bit madcap, but very funny.

Also: I recently read The Cuckoo's Calling by "Robert Galbraith" and it was shockingly good popcorn reading. Very true to the tropes in the genre, a cracking story, played fair with the reader (all the clues were properly available), and a deserved success even before the author was revealed. It'll probably be a movie sometime soon... Definitely a good "airport novel".
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:02 PM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mr. hgg recommends the following:

John Russell series by David Downing (set in WWII Germany)

Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco--salacious, fun true stories from 1920s Paris
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:10 PM on May 13, 2014

Film noir

Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, and Charles Willeford. Each had novels adapted into noir or neo-noir films.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:26 PM on May 13, 2014

For a long time my go-to guy was F. Paul Wilson, best known for his Repairman Jack series. I kind of prefer his stand-alone medical thrillers like "Deep as the Marrow" or "Implant" but he has a WWII novel called "Black Wind" as well.

The Sherlock Holmes stories still retain a lot of their entertainment value.
posted by Flexagon at 12:31 PM on May 13, 2014

I’ll cover two of your favourite settings - Noir and WWII - with "Berlin Noir” by Philip Kerr - a collection of his excellent first three books about Bernie Gunther, a cynical ex-cop turned P.I. in Berlin around WWII. Great plots, characters and atmosphere. (Also seconding Alan Fursts WWII-novels).
posted by Petersondub at 1:20 PM on May 13, 2014

It's not set in any of your locations, but I think Where'd you go, Bernadette? is a worthy airport novel.
posted by kimberussell at 1:20 PM on May 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here are some of my favorites:

The Alienist (murder mystery set in turn-of-the-19th century NYC - the sequel is decent too)
Gone to Soldiers (pretty epic novel following 10 characters in the US and Europe through WWII)
The Passage and The Twelve (parts 1 and 2 of a post-apocalyptic trilogy, written by a "literary fiction" author but very much a page-turner)
Nthing Donna Tartt, especially The Secret History. The Goldfinch is more literary but eminently readable in the tradition of Dickens (it's also one of my favorite reads in a long, long time).
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Anything by Ken Follet: Fall of Giants and Pillars of the Earth are great.
posted by lunasol at 1:24 PM on May 13, 2014

Stephen King
John D. McDonald
Neal Stephenson's REAMDE
Elmore Leonard (start with Freaky Deaky)
James Ellroy
John Le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl
G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries
Jim Thompson
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:25 PM on May 13, 2014

Alan Furst's 'Night Soldiers' series of spy novels set between 1933-44 in Europe. Beware, they are addictive.
posted by Mister Bijou at 1:27 PM on May 13, 2014

The three Finley Dunne novels by Peter Quinn cover several of your categories, from WWI through to pre-revolutionary Cuba. Quinn is also a better writer than most airport novelists.

You might want to take a look at Robert Harris.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:24 PM on May 13, 2014

A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming

Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

The Killer of Little Sherpherds by Douglas Starr (non-fiction)

Chasing Shadows by Fred Burton (non-fiction)
posted by stampsgal at 2:46 PM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Richard Stark's Parker novels. Short, sharp, great fun.
posted by smoke at 4:19 PM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gail Carriger's The Parasol Protectorate series veers pretty strongly into the supernatural, but they are set in Victorian England and are a ton of fun to read.

Night Film by Marisha Pessel was another super fun read.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 4:46 PM on May 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Richard Stark is one of several pen names of Donald Westlake. His Dortmunder novels are the result of a Stark novel that insisted on going funny.

They're both equally worth your time.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:38 PM on May 13, 2014

I loved Child 44.

Also, Nelson Demille has some great page-turners. Charm School is my favorite, but I also really liked Gold Coast and Plum Island.

N'thing Lee Child and also Harlan Coben, who has good thrillers that are fun to read and which you'll completely forget you read within a month.
posted by triggerfinger at 5:41 PM on May 13, 2014

Maeve Binchy
posted by sulaine at 6:16 PM on May 13, 2014

Of varying quality, but all page-turners: The Quincunx, Shadow of the Wind, The Black Dahlia, Ragtime, The Crimson Petal and The White, 11/22/63. Agreed on Sarah Waters and Dennis Lehane. You might also try Richard Price, though his stuff isn't necessarily your period. My favorite book about old New York is Luc Sante's Lowlife, which is technically non-fiction. The London equivalent is The Victorian Underworld, which is often hilariously prim.
posted by thivaia at 9:23 PM on May 13, 2014

Connie Willis's books Black Out and All Clear. WWII, time travel (but not in an obtrusive way, it would fit right into a 80s/90s movie), edge-of-your-seat life and death situations. In fact, once I booked a flight for completely the wrong day which I didn't discover till I got to the airport. Cursed a lot, booked a new flight, had a couple of hours to kill before the flight, and fortunately also had both of the books. I barely noticed the time passing.

Her others are good too; To Say Nothing of the Dog is fantastic and funny and set in Victorian England (mostly). It is funnier if you have already read Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat but it's not essential.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:57 AM on May 14, 2014

Is Glenn David Gould's Sunnyside too literary for you? It's a big novel that rattles along quickly, and is about the silent era of Hollywood, particularly Charlie Chaplin. Mary Pickford, Rin Tin Tin and various other luminaries pop up too.

Non-fiction, but I really enjoyed Jeanette Walls' Dish recently - a history of the gossip trade that in itself can be entertainingly salacious. Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge is another non-fiction work that reads like a novel - ostensibly the story of Harry Selfridge, it also details the flapper society, the history of retail, and the changes that came to Britain post WWI. I didn't expect much from it but it was fascinating.

Kathleen Tessaro's The Perfume Collector - the role of scent in post-War Paris and 1950s England.

J Courtney Sullivan's Engagements - the history of diamonds and rings, told in narratives from 1950s Madison Avenue to 1980s suburbia.

I spent my last holiday reading all of Meg Cabot's Queen of Babble and Heather Wells series - depends on your tolerance for chick lit tropes, but they were fun and surprisingly witty. They are rom-coms, mind (the latter is a mystery rom-com).
posted by mippy at 4:56 AM on May 14, 2014

Carter Beats the Devil, which is a mystery in the 1920s with magicians and Warren Harding and... to say more would be to say too much, but it's lots of fun.
posted by Etrigan at 6:20 AM on May 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recently read this really random book that was a fun, easy read, sort of a lighthearted crime story, called Bedfellows. It's written by NPR's Bob Garfield.
posted by radioamy at 2:00 PM on May 14, 2014

I recommend the Doan and Carstairs novels of Norbert Davis. Wittgenstein's favorites! (Not me - the real Wittgenstein)
posted by wittgenstein at 10:35 AM on May 15, 2014

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