Two debut novels with an identical theme—terrorism at the Super Bowl—came out in 1975 bringing singular success to their authors: they sold to the movies. Both films—Two Minute Warning and Black Sunday--starred big-name actors. One flopped, the other hit. The author of the flop published 14 more novels, yet today is essentially forgotten despite winning a PEN award for one and success on the screen with another. The hit's author is known as the creator of arguably the greatest modern fictional bad guy: Hannibal Lecter.
It might be no accident that Thomas Harris's blast-off success, Black Sunday, also features a weighty villain—a ruthless operative in the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. By contrast, the villain in George La Fountaine's Two Minute Warning is a young man of little substance with no interesting motive, the stereotypical lone gunman soured on life, as much a victim as those who fall within his rifle sights.
The famous Goodyear blimp hovers as a symbolic paradox in the fate of these two stories. In Two Minute Warning a TV camera in the gondola provides the first glimpse of the sniper hidden behind the scoreboard. Terrorists hijack the blimp in Black Sunday to deliver a bomb whose shrapnel can prove lethal to all 80,000 people inside the stadium, including the U.S. President.
Blimp as good guy, blimp as bad guy. Which one looms on book cover and movie poster? Bad blimp, of course. Why we are fascinated more by villains is above my pay grade, but we are. A primal thing maybe. The thing that could end up giving Donald Trump control over our hair styles like that other child monster has over his subjects, in North Korea.
From what we have, it seems plausible to blame the blimp for La Fountaine's literary flame-out. Although Black Sunday comes out ahead in a comparison of the writing--Harris was a newspaper wordsmith when he wrote it; cinematography was La Fountaine's trade--we know fine writing alone does not a blazing commercial success necessarily make. Robert Stone and Ron Faust come to mind. At the spectrum's opposite end we find E. L. “Shades of Grey” James.
Whatever it might be, the formula for success, La Fountaine learned quickly. He proved this with his second novel, Flashpoint, published the following year. A New York Times review pronounced it "much better--more original, written with more security, and with a chilling impact in its last pages." It took a little longer for Flashpoint to make it to the movies—eight years--but its success towered over Two Minute Warning's. It remains one of my all-time favorites, and it introduced me to La Fountaine's novels.
And to his mystery.