Book review: Before the Fall

NOAH HAWLEY sprinkles this propulsive thriller with a little literary fairy dust to make it a very entertaining novel that engages with some of the big contemporary themes of the multi-media world. 

Noah Hawley

Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99

While it chimes with the times it is also in the old-fashioned sense a well-made book.

The cast of characters rush to a flight from Martha’s Vineyard to Manhattan by private jet. 

Inexplicably, the plane crashes into the sea 10 miles off the coast leaving only two survivors, a young boy and an artist, Scott Burroughs, who has been hitching a lift on the jet to meet a gallery owner in New York to discuss a possible exhibition of his paintings of disaster scenes. 

Burroughs was obsessed from childhood with the Herculean strength of a celebrated swimmer and on this occasion Scott manages something of a superhuman feat himself by swimming ashore saving the boy and himself from shark-infested waters.

The media goes into a frenzy to get a piece of this hero swimmer. 

But the aviation investigators, the police, and the FBI want to know why a sleek new jet would plunge into the sea, particularly when one of the passengers is about to be indicted for laundering money from countries deemed unfriendly to US interests and another on the dead list is the owner of the jet who also owns a media empire. 

Central also to the investigation is that the surviving boy is the son of the media tycoon and stands to inherit more than $100 million.

If Scott did well to survive the sharks in his miraculous swim from disaster to safety with a child on his back he now has to survive the sharks circling him in the ensuing investigation. And then there’s Bill Milligan. 

The bould Bill is easily the most detestable character on a spectrum of unsavoury characters here but he is used terrifically by Hawley to drive the narrative. 

Scott leaves himself wide open to suspicion by appearing to bed-hop his way through survival and all the time generating these huge canvases depicting scenes of disaster including some relating to plane crashes — done before the crash at the centre of the investigation.

Bill Milligan follows his hunches like a crazed blood-hound — that is if blood-hounds are adept at phone-tapping and bouts of morally suspect self-righteousness. 

As Scott is trying to re-build his own life and tentatively help to draw the boy out of post-traumatic shock, Milligan is building an elaborate theory about what is really going on and he’s trotting it out in live broadcasts with leak after leak putting Scott in a tighter corner.

Noah Hawley’s name may be familiar to Fargo fans for his adaptation of the excellent TV series (the first series certainly was a humdinger). 

His astuteness in driving a story is also evident here as is his knack for making sly and delicious use of characters’ weaker more venal motivations to raise the stakes in the story. 

What the novel allows him to do more thoroughly is to get into the psychology and backstories of several key characters.

There is a canniness to Hawley’s writing which makes his digressions feel like they just might be vital to the story. 

As is often the case when so many narrative lines are elaborated the end can only go so far in satisfying the reader’s desire to have everything tied up or connected. 

And in this one the ending — not to spoil it — does not connect all the parts. Yet there is a strong impact at the end as the moral implications come tumbling down. And at the end there is a palpable sense of what readers relish — more than justice, more than moral rectitude, that ineffable literary commodity — comeuppance.


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