Written by Noah Hawley — American author Noah Hawley is a proven storyteller. His television series Fargo has made our top five shows in both 2014 and 2015. Now he has delivered a gripping new novel which opens with a dramatic plane crash. A private jet mysteriously goes off radar shortly after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard and crashes into the sea, killing nine passengers, but sparing two improbable survivors who somehow crawl to shore.
While one of the crash victims is media mogul David Bateman, one of the survivors, artist Scott Burroughs, pulls Bateman’s four-year-old son JJ from the floating wreckage, and swims with him for eight miles despite having a dislocated shoulder. But more ordeals are in store for the two survivors-cum-celebrities, who are assaulted relentlessly by the media and a news cycle hungry for new information.
With little initial forensic evidence to go on, the investigators begin by checking the backgrounds of the victims. There is David Bateman, media mogul behind the country’s top right-wing news network, who has plenty of enemies. Then there’s the equally high-profile Ben Kipling, a Wall Street power broker and money launderer whose young daughter had once been a kidnapping victim. Kipling was facing indictment just before boarding the plane, a fact his secret North Korean and Iranian clients won’t be happy about. The competent and no-nonsense pilot had a clean record, as did his co-pilot, a selfish rogue interested in the stewardess working on board. Then there’s Bateman’s elite bodyguard, who has had a broad range of international clients and a mysterious past. Besides young JJ, that just leaves Scott Burroughs, an artist whose sole subject just happens to be disaster scenarios.
Meanwhile, Bateman’s protegee, the right-wing pundit and talk show host Bill Cunningham who is a barely concealed version of Bill O’Reilly, cries foul play and conspiracy to gin up ratings. He locks his sights on the mysterious artist. Is this new darling of the media a saviour, or a terrorist who somehow survived his own attack? After all, Burroughs has painted many disasters including a plane crash.
Hawley zooms in and out of the intimate struggles faced by the artist and the orphaned boy who form a fragile relationship fraught with trauma and survivor guilt, as they try to heal amidst the surreal broadcasted hype and circling media crews. The boy’s aunt is sweet and helpful, but her husband is a selfish Brooklynite hipster already drooling over the inheritance money.
As Burroughs avoids the media and their perverse spin on reality, Cunningham is as intrigued by the artist as the wealthy art patron who shelters him, but takes it personally when he refuses an exclusive interview. Cunningham will stop at nothing to get to Burroughs, even deploying his own mercenary gumshoe to hunt down victim’s families and tap phones.
While the civilian drama unfolds, the feds finally find the wreckage. It turns out the pilot was outside of his own cabin during the crash, his cockpit door riddled with bullet holes, apparently from the bodyguard’s gun. The bodyguard’s body has not been found. Scott Burroughs meanwhile prepares for a face-off with Cunningham on live TV. Just as the soulful artist and the master media manipulator begin their clash, the investigators locate the black box and learn the whole truth.
Before the Fall is both a mystery and a meditation on destiny that will appeal to crime fiction readers as much as those of general fiction who’ve raised the book up onto all bestsellers lists. Noah Hawley impressively packs many characters into a relatively small book, and the fierce momentum of events prevents any real investment into any one character, even our struggling artist-hero, Scott Burroughs.
The author’s keen and encyclopedic insight is brilliant to the point of exhausting. He examines the machinations of the mass media’s ratings race, forensic procedures, the art world, the macho bravado of the corporate jungle, and even the magical reverie of a local farmer’s market.
One detail you might balk at is an inordinately thorough biographical sidebar on real-life fitness guru Jack LaLanne, ostensibly justified here as the artist’s inspiration lifeline, but which nevertheless seems gratuitous. It’s as if Hawley decided to mash-up an unfinished biographical sketch with a plane crash thriller. I suspect the author, who himself is developing Before the Fall for the silver screen, might consign Jack to the cutting floor.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars