E. P. Gottschalk
Book Review of Double Malfunction
by Jim Bates
by E. P. Gottschalk; Daedalus Press, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania;
261 p., 1991.
Finally! Contemporary sport parachuting/skydiving fiction - a
good suspense story - by a woman involved in sport parachuting
for a substantial period of time as a skydiver, jumpmaster/instructor,
and FAA Senior Parachute Rigger.
Skydiving - with a beginning in this country in the early 1950s,
and first known as"sport parachuting" - has suffered
from a lack of "serious" fiction writing about it. Imagine
- some forty years before a worthwhile book-length skydiving story
appears, one that both skydivers and mystery fans should enjoy.
To appreciate how well Double Malfunction is told you ought to
understand earlier other efforts at creating fiction and capitalizing
on a most unusual aviation activity.
In 1962 a paperback book titled "The Sky Divers" appeared
- written by Lou Cameron. Little is known about Mr. Cameron's
involvement with parachutes and parachuting, if any at all.
A publisher's cover blurb breathlessly told: "Ten thousand
feet above the Earth; that's when you jump - and at first you
feel as if you left your stomach back up there in the plane. But
you don't panic. You don't show silk. You soar in and out of a
figure-8 and then, at 2,000 feet, you pull the cord. But one man
in Steve Hovik's sky diving club didn't intend to pull the cord.
Someone else had cut six chutes to shreds. And then there was
Amber McCall - the girl in the gold lame jump suit, the beautiful
bitch who wanted Steve Hovik - and didn't care whom she destroyed
to get him."
Cameron's narrative is well put together, from a writing-craft
viewpoint, but it only takes a sport parachuting reader a page
or so to realize that his knowledge of skydiving seems to have
been gained by "lurking" jumpers, rather than being
a parachutist. Many terms and descriptions used by Cameron apparently
were loosely (and sometimes inaccurately) based on overhearing
jump stories, combining them with his lurid imagination.
In 1964 James Drought's "Gypsy Moths" was published.
The cover proclaimed: "The famous novel now a great MGM motion
picture starring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr." Another
blurb said: "A powerful novel of a trio of stunt parachutists
challenging death [that] has caught the imagination of this generation
with an overpowering force." (Heady stuff, right?) The movie
- with highly skilled skydivers doubling for actors in freefall
and under-canopy scenes - did have a lot of excellent and colorful
parachuting, and Lancaster, Gene Hackman, and Scott Wilson were
easily believable in their actions, thanks to excellent technical
Skydiving publications have carried excellent movie-making "behind-the-scenes"
There are no clues to identify when Drought's fictional stunt
jumpers roamed the midwest. A skydiving reader, however, will
quickly wonder where writer Drought learned about parachuting.
Here's how the story's narrator explains equipment: "We used
the regular back-pack parachutes, the old T-7s the army used to
call them. They were a little better than the air force survival
chutes and a little worse than the new ones the army airborne
was using now, the T-10s. In the T-7 the canopy comes out of the
back pack first and then the lines, so that when the canopy pops
open the guy hanging in the harness feels like he's been hit by
a freight train. The chute whips open throwing all the shock on
the backlash. The T-10 throws the chute pack away from the man
and the canopy opens and pulls out the risers, the long cords
running from the chute to the harness. That way a guy doesn't
get the shock all at once. It's a nice friendly chute. But Browdy
and Rettig [Reviewer: the other two barnstormers] never jumped
the new chute and they were leery of it. They were too old to
(Old? Browdy is earlier described as age 30, the doomed Rettig
as 35.) Later, Browdy says: "The chances of a chute getting
wet and not opening are mighty thin. The real danger comes in
packing the chute when it's damp."
Rettig adds: "Well, there've been cases when the nylon sides
stuck together in the air.xWhen the chute is pulled out of the
pack on our backs, it comes out twisted and stretched out behind
us. The risers, or the cords, are attached all along the bottom
of the chute. So unless some air gets up through the bottom and
forces the chute open, nothing happens. It doesn't open."
Enough now about basically good narratives but failures regarding
parachuting. For the next quarter century-plus no other skydiving
fiction books appeared. Random pieces of "fantasy" fiction
appeared occasionally in sport parachuting subscription/membership
periodicals, but regular readers seemed to prefer how-to articles,
meet information, and people pictured getting awards and pies
in the face.
Author E. Gottschalk, as she chooses to identify herself, in addition
to her writing and plotting skills, can be considered a "veteran"
skydiver, starting in 1981 while a graduate student. She stayed
in the sport, eventually training students and becoming an FAA-certificated
parachute rigger. Her decade of knowledge was put to good use
in her "skydiving mystery" - terminology was accurate;
how things are usually done in skydiving were well told. Beyond
parachuting expertise, E.P. Gottschalk gives characters depth
- even the "bad guys" - and gives them reasons for doing
things and for having feelings about things, both in and out of
skydiving. There is easily enough suspense to make a reader keep
turning pages. The denouement is believable and a sport parachuting
reader will be satisfied with the story.
Based on four stars,"Double Malfunction" rates three
and a half. Add this to your parachuting library for some good
reading - and rereading. Her hardcover book is available through
the Skydiving Book Service of Mike Truffer's "Skydiving"
magazine and at many of the larger commercial drop zones that
have well stocked "stores."
©Copyright 1996 by Jan Meyer.