The Edgar Awards Revisited: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley (Best Novel, 2017)
By Larry ClowMarch 20, 2020
In Before the Fall, Noah Hawley takes all of the usual elements of a mystery-thriller and transforms them through the alchemy of disaster.
Early in Before the Fall, Noah Hawley’s 2017 Edgar Award-winner, protagonist Scott Burroughs describes himself as a “disaster survivor in that he had survived the disaster that was his life.” A middle-aged painter and recovering alcoholic, Scott lives on Martha’s Vineyard in a beach shack with a three-legged dog. After years of struggling, his newest paintings are drawing notice and he’s putting his life together one canvas at a time.
But then, on hot August night, Scott gets on a private plane with 10 other people, and soon his life is defined by a new, incomprehensible disaster. Sixteen minutes after the plane takes off, it crashes into the ocean.The only survivors are Scott and a four-year-old boy, JJ. Injured, in shock, and lost in the darkness of the open ocean, Scott—a skilled swimmer, by coincidence—scoops up the boy and swims through the night, carrying them to a Montauk beach.
Though he’s best known as the creator and lead writer of Fargo, the anthology television series based on the 1996 Coen brothers film, Hawley is also a novelist—Before the Fall is his fifth book. It’s rich and densely packed with exemplary character work, unexpected plotting, and lyrical details. The two chapters that detail Scott’s epic swim are especially gripping and beautiful:
He tries not to picture the depth of the ocean or how the Atlantic in August is the birthplace of massive storm fronts, hurricanes that form in the cold troughs of undersea gorges, weather patterns colliding, temperature and moisture forming huge pockets of low pressure. Global forces conspiring, barbarian hordes with clubs and war paint who charge shrieking into the fray, and instantly the sky thickens, blackens, an ominous gale of lightning strikes, huge claps of thunder like the screams of battle, and the seah, which moments ago was calm, turns to hell on earth.
The crash is the beginning of Scott’s problems. The plane belonged to David Batemen, the immensely powerful and rich CEO of a Fox News-esque cable network. The crash killed Bateman and his wife, Maggie—who initially invited Scott to fly with them back to New York—and their nine-year-old daughter, Rachel. The boy Scott rescued is the last surviving member of the Bateman family—and a target for exploitative relatives.
Also on the plane is Ben Kipling, a finance guy deep in laundering money for various hostile foreign governments and about 12 hours from being arrested by the FBI. Kipling’s wife is with him; the Bateman’s bodyguard, Gil, and the pilot, co-pilot, and flight attendant, round out the passengers. They’re all the sort of people who belong on a private plane, all except for Scott, and soon the media tires of Scott’s heroics and questions whether an unknown element like him brought down the plane.
There’s one other problem: all of Scott’s new paintings that are getting attention from gallery owners and possible patrons? They’re all paintings of train derailments, tornadoes, and other disasters. Scott can’t remember anything leading up to the crash and JJ won’t talk with anyone but Scott. Federal agents are left to piece events together—as is Bill Cunningham, the bloviating anchor who’s the public face of Bateman’s cable news network.
Through them, Hawley doles out answers about the plane crash, but Before the Fall is about more than solving the mystery. The book unfolds like a stage magician’s trick. Hawley misdirects us, dropping hints about tragic pasts and family secrets, delving into long asides that take our attention away from the main plot only to lead us back into the thick of it, our perspective suddenly changed. The book is a character study, tracing the paths of each of the crash’s victims, revealing how choices large and small brought them to that moment. Characters who, in other books, would be relegated to the background instead get rich backstories. Hawley looks at his characters the way you might examine a painting, with different perspectives revealing new depths. Here, he delves into the life of Gil, a former Israeli soldier turned bodyguard:
He thought about what it meant to live your life as an echo, a shadow, always standing behind a man and his light. He had scars he wouldn’t discuss. He slept with his finger on the trigger of a Glock. He knew that the world was an impossibility, that the state of Israel was an impossibility, that every day men woke and put on their boots and went off to do the impossible no matter what it might be. This was the hubris of mankind, to rally in the face of overwhelming odds, to thread the needle and climb the mountain and survive the storm.
Before the Fall is something of a satire, too—how could it not be, with a right-wing cable network at its center and Wall Street mercenaries, liberal celebrity heiresses, powerful senators, and money-hungry hipsters all circling like sharks? Scott wades through the miasma of modern media with a Lebowski-like calm, upending the macho posturing around him and striving to rediscover his sense of self and purpose.
“We’re thinking of getting a warrant to look at your paintings.”
Scott opens his eyes.
“What would that look like?” he asks. “A warrant to look at art?” He pictures a drawing of a document, an artist’s rendering.
“It’s a piece of paper signed by a judge that lets us seize your shit,” says O’Brien.
“Or maybe come over Thursday night,” says Scott. “I’ll serve white wine in paper cups and put out a tray of Stella D’oro breadsticks. Have you been to a gallery opening before?”
“I’ve been to the fucking Louvre,” snaps O’Brien.
“Is that near the regular Louvre?”
Scott never tries to identify the culprits or solve the case; he just wants to figure out the right thing to do for his life, and for JJ. The pace is swift and the book is compelling, though there’s little in the way of action. There are red herrings that never feel like fake-outs, and the atmosphere is thick with tension without any clear danger. Hawley takes all the usual elements of a mystery-thriller and transforms them through the alchemy of disaster. It takes a little luck and a lot of skill to make a book like this work. Hawley makes it look easy.
Notes from the 2017 Edgar Awards:
- Also up for Best Novel this year: The Ex by Alafair Burke, Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman, Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye, and What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin.
- In the Best First Novel category, Flynn Berry’s Under the Harrow beat out Dodgers by Bill Beverly, IQ by Joe Ide, The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie, Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright, and The Lost Girls by Heather Young.
- Adrian McKinty’s Rain Dogs picked up Best Paperback Original (and also won an Anthony Award in the same category).
- In nonfiction, The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer won Best Fact Crime, while Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life nabbed Best Critical/Biographical.
- Lawrence Block received top honors in Best Short Story for “Autumn at the Automat.” This was his fourth time winning the prize.
- Max Allan Collins and Ellen Hart were co-Grand Masters. The Raven Award went to Dru Ann Love, and Neil Nyren took home the Ellery Queen Award.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as our own Joe Brosnan returns to review Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, the 2018 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.