Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Before the Fall

by Noah Hawley
Grand Central     2016
391 pages     Mystery

Out today, June 1, 2016. The best mystery I have read this year. 

It took me until about 30 pages from the end of Before the Fall by Noah Hawley before I finally figured out what happened to the chartered airplane that crashed 18 minutes after taking off from Martha's Vineyard with 11 people on board. David Bateman is the CEO of a media company (think Fox News). He leased the plane for himself, his wife, Maggie, and his two children Rachel and JJ. Maggie invited another Vineyard couple, Ben and Sarah Kipling to ride back to the city with them, and then at the last minute, she invited a casual friend, Scott Burroughs, to join them; he arrives just before the plane takes off. There are three crew members and the Bateman's bodyguard on board. All seemly goes well until the plane crashes into the Sound and breaks apart.

Somehow, miraculously, Scott Burroughs survives the crash as does 4-year-old JJ.  Scott was a swimmer in high school; he hears the boy crying in the dark water as the plane sinks. Scott flounders around in the water with a dislocated shoulder until he finds the boy, and then with JJ on his back, he swims for miles and miles until he reaches shore at Montauk. He becomes a hero—or is he the villain? Why is it that he and JJ survived when everyone else perished? 

The plot is extremely intense, and the reader really wants to be able to figure out why the plane crashed, but we are left in the dark until very near the end. It is indeed a page turner.  More importantly, Before the Fall is a carefully crafted character study, with each character described in such a way that we have a clear picture of their motives and their contribution to the plot. And herein lies the brilliance of the novel. Hawley's characters are so finely drawn that we know them intimately. As he tells us their back stories, we see how each one contributes to the unfolding tragedy.

Two parallel things happen in this novel. There is the investigation into the crash conducted by the NTSB and the FBI. Interspersed with the investigation are  the back stories of the passengers and crew. All these pieces fit together flawlessly. In addition to an intriguing plot and interesting characters, I found myself fascinated by Hawley's insights and asides—in my mind they are as integral to the novel as the plot line. Virtually every chapter begins with some philosophical musings, and the character studies are full of insights that make the characters come alive. 

Gill Baruch is the family bodyguard, and the chapter that tells his story is extremely well constructed and revealing. I loved this description of his job: "To be a body man did not mean being in a state of constant alarm. In fact it was the opposite. . .The best body men understood this. They knew that the job required a kind of tense passivity, mind and body in tune with all five senses. If you thought about it, private security was just another form of Buddhism, tai chi. To live in the moment, fluidly, thinking of nothing more than where you are and what exists around you. Bodies in space and time moving along a prescribed arc. Shadow and light. Positive and negative space." 

In other words, Before The Fall delivers far more than a plot driven thriller. We get an insight into the workings of the minds of all the characters, and indeed, the workings of Noah Hawley's mind as well. Hawley is the author of several previous novel, and serves as the producer, writer, and showrunner of the award-winning series Fargo on FX. Perhaps therein lies the magic of the novel; it has some characteristics of a script with its back and forth, but at the same time, it has much more depth than a script.

 I highly recommend Before the Fall. Reviewers are falling all over themselves with praise. Allow time to read Before the Fall this summer.

Noah Hawley's website.              

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