Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is a heart-pounding thriller that raises questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.

As Noah Hawley sets up his thriller Before the Fall, 11 people take off in a private airplane from Martha’s Vineyard that winds up crashing 16 minutes into the flight. 

On board the private plane are:

  • The owners of the plane—the rich and powerful David Bateman and his wife Maggie.
  • Their two children.
  • Another rich and powerful couple—the husband learns right as he's boarding the plane that he'll be arrested the following day.
  • A bodyguard.
  • Two pilots.
  • A flight attendant.
  • A random acquaintance who needed a ride.

When the plane goes down, it is only the acquaintance, Scott Burroughs, and the Bateman’s four-year-old son that remain alive. But this book is as much about the lives of these eleven people as it is about the crash. And that’s what makes it so interesting. As the scenes alternate between the present day investigation and flashbacks of the victims of the crash, we learn about their backgrounds and what led them to that day. 

Burroughs, a struggling artist, is a likable main character who was starting to rebuild his life while recovering from a midlife crisis. It’s during this rebuild that he met Maggie Bateman. His recommitment to his career is admirable, and it's not the easiest path, but he somehow doesn’t fall into the cliché of the tortured artist.

He was a disaster survivor in that he had survived the disaster that was his life. And so that’s what he painted. Thatsummer he had rented a house on Martha’s Vineyard and holed up. Once again, the only thing that mattered was the work, except now he realized the work was him. “There is no separating yourself from the things you make,” he thought. “If you are a cesspool, what else can your work be except shit?”

As the only adult survivor, naturally suspicion lands on Scott. This suspicion is heightened when a sensationalist TV personality decides to revive his career by dredging up whatever dirt he can find on the painter and covering it on TV in the most dramatic way possible.

In addition to Burroughs, I found the investigator, Gus Franklin, and Eleanor, who becomes the little boy's guardian, to be my favorites. But all of Hawley’s characters in this novel have a depth about them.

Since we know that the airplane is going to crash at the beginning of the book, Before the Fall deviates from the usual thriller conventions. This setup makes the characters and the investigation feel fresh while maintaining the quick pace and urgency needed to sustain a thriller. 

Hawley has won an Emmy and many other awards. He has also been a creative force in TV shows including Fargo, Legion, Bones, My Generation, and The Unusuals. His TV background is apparent in his clear writing and fast but well planned plotting. 

Before the Fall is easy to read and hard to put down. I read the novel in one day, finding it hard to tear myself away. This book is Hawley’s 4th novel, and I plan to pick up the other three. 


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Deborah Lacy’s short mystery fiction has appeared in Mystery Weekly Magazine, the 2016 Bouchercon Anthology: Blood on the Bayou, and she has a story coming up in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She also runs the Mystery Playground blog


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