Review: Flight of the Fox by Gray Basnight
By Janet WebbJuly 24, 2018
Flight of the Fox by Gray Basnight is a near-future thriller where an innocent math professor runs for his life as teams of hitmen try to prevent publication of their government’s dark history.
Flight of the Fox opens with a “Dear John” letter that encapsulates why retired Columbia math professor Sam Teagarden is on the run for his life, hunted like a fox.
Monday, June 13, 1938
FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
This is to advise you of a new file entered to the bureau record, fully encrypted, and maintained only by me. It’s because you are such a naughty boy. It’s because of your habit of personally vetting all the strapping new talent that walks (or may be persuaded to confidentially walk) our enlightened side of the street.
Why is the nameless writer maintaining encrypted files on John’s activities? “For honor and career, naturally. Yes, my love, this is the bitter voice of mercenary cunning. It is my insurance against termination, transfer, or being dumped as your sweetheart.” “Dear John” is John Edgar Hoover, the founder and first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (from 1935 until his death in 1977). Decades later, the encrypted information is still incendiary and must never come to light.
Eighty-one years later, July 20, 2019, in bucolic Bethel, New York, Sam Teagarden is relaxing on his sundeck with Coconut, his “old and overweight yellow Lab.” He hears a “revved-up buzz” from what he thinks is a new and improved hummingbird, but it’s actually a “compact helicopter about the size of a baseball.” Coconut saves Sam’s life by leaping up and taking a round from the menacing device—a round of poison that results in “instantaneous termination of life.”
Sam’s greatest strength, even in the face of inexplicable and targeted evil, is his calculating, analytical way of looking at facts. Sam thinks, “Who would do this? More importantly—why?” as he swiftly realizes he’s the target. Why? Because it’s “actually possible.”
Occam’s razor, the very definition of logical frugality, says the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions is the correct hypothesis. Put another way, the simplest solution—is—the solution.
If he’s the target, then staying put makes him a sitting duck. But what about those poisonous mini-bombs? Is it a cliché to expect that the hero of a thriller will be a man of action when it’s so often the case? Guns blazing come to mind. When Sam was an undergrad at Chapel Hill, he shot skeet, although “he failed to qualify for the U.S. team at the ’92 Olympic Games in Barcelona.” Clearly, no ordinary skeet shooter. Sam locates his 1985 Remington 1100 shotgun in his crowded basement workshop but cannot seem to locate the bullets. Time for Sam Teagarden to utilize a Zen approach to problem-solving. The question: “Where would an obsessively cautious man like me hide shotgun shells?”
The only way to find a solution was to be calm, turn inward and let the subconscious whisper the answer. That was the way all great solutions are born. It happens when people are in the shower, waking-up, falling asleep, mowing the grass, jogging. Only when the mind is empty of all competing nonsense, will the voice of atavistic clairvoyance speak loud enough to be heard by the conscious mind.
Sam remembers that the shells are outside in the garden shed, so “as wary as a turtle hiding from sniffing coyotes, he poked his head past the lawnmower for a better look.” Unfortunately, he spots four drones circling his house. Sam creates a diversion, locates the shells, load up his shotgun, and takes out the drones. Then, he’s off, plunging into the woods that surround his house.
On the day his home was attacked and his dog was killed, “an encoded document mysteriously lands in his in-box.” Before Sam entered academe, he worked as a low-level government cryptologist—translation, he’s a trained codebreaker. Gray Basnight mixes mathematical and animal metaphors with pinpoint precision, giving readers insight into how a 49-year-old retired mathematics professor can elude waves of FBI assassins. When Sam realizes he has spent his first night as a fugitive running in circles, he’s elated because circles are “the stuff of legendary mystery.”
The great mathematician Archimedes died while trying to understand them. When the Romans came to kill him, he pointed to his chalk etchings and told them, “Do not disturb my circles.” A soldier accommodated the demand by running him through the gut with a sword.
Sam Teagarden does not intend to oblige his pursuers by standing still while they kill him: he’s going to run like a fox. How does a fox run? Sam’s knows that too.
Teagarden couldn’t remember why he knew about fox hunting. A smart fox will run a zig-zag pattern to throw off the dogs. A dumb fox will simply bolt hard in a straight line. Dogs prefer a dumb fox because it makes them look better when they quickly catch the prey. Hunters prefer a smart fox because it’s more fun.
Sam hopes to “be a smart fox running from dumb hunters,” but the FBI hunters are not dumb. Sam Teagarden cleverly negotiates a maze of traps while calling upon reserves of guile, all the while decoding a phenomenally explosive document. For Sam to be the greatest whistleblower of all time and not get dead first, it sure helps to be a mathematician/cryptologist with the skills of a crafty fox—he has the rogue G-Men running in circles as they try in vain to take him down.