Before the Fall by Noah Hawley is one of those books that I kept hearing about, but never actually picked up until now. After seeing that it had been nominated for Best Mystery & Thriller for the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards, I finally searched for it at the library and was able to pick it up. Even though it did not end up winning the award, I had heard enough good things that I was sure to be in for a decent ride.
The Situation: If you were to ask Scott, he would confess himself to be somewhat of a failure at life. On paper he is a full-time painter, but in reality his work never quite brought him enough attention so that he could hit it big. But it did give him just enough access to alcohol and money, until he finds himself middle-aged with very little to show for his time on Earth. Only after making a concerted effort to pull away from how he had been living his life does he start to really paint again and pull himself together. Living a somewhat secluded and simple life on Martha's Vineyard allows him to concentrate, and after some good fortune, he has managed to schedule some meetings back in New York City. An acquaintance with Maggie, the wife of a television executive who is at Martha's Vineyard on holiday, gives him access to a ride on a private plane back into the city. Things appear to be looking up, right up until it is clear that they are not.
The Problem: The private plane that Scott boards never makes it Martha's Vineyard. After it crashes into the Atlantic Ocean about 16 minutes after take-off, Scott finds himself swimming for his life, though he has no idea if he is swimming towards the shore or away from it. And it isn't just his own life that he is trying to save. Maggie's four year-old son has also somehow survived the crash, and now Scott must fight the water, the wreckage, the night, and the cold temperatures as he struggles toward land. And while that is hard enough, Scott will have another fight on his hands once the two of them make it to safety and the world begins to piece together the story. Most everyone will see him as a hero, but of course, there are those that will wonder why he was even on the plane, and how he managed to be only one of two to survive. Plus, even those that believe him to be a hero will not be willing to give him his privacy. With a full investigation underway, and the suspicious being incredibly eager to talk and throw out wild accusations, the reader of this mystery is fed the stories of those who were on the plane in little bits, leading up to a final reveal that answers nearly everything.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is heavier on the mystery than on the thriller, if only because the terrible thing has already happened, but now we are trying to find out why, with no real threat of another terrible happening. While those in the media and those investigating the crash are interested in why Scott was on the plane, the reader already knows the answer, so the full attention is turned to why it went down, and who exactly is responsible. There are many motives to choose from, the least of all would belong to Scott. David Bateman is a high-powered television executive who has plenty of reasons to be paranoid and worried about his family's safety. And his friend, Ben Kipling, seems to have been involved in some less than favorable business deals with some less then favorable governments overseas. Add in some complex relationships between crew members on board, and things tricky. But Hawley illustrates just how easily the media, and people in general, like to grab hold of the most available explanation, despite there being no proof that it is the right one. And with freedom of speech and the 24-hour news cycle, people are allowed to throw out their theories and make accusations with little regard to the people they are affecting. Information becomes currency, and those who have the most win. Scott becomes a victim of this cycle, knowing that to try to clear his name by going on a popular talking head's news show would only make things worse. But staying silent does not seem to help either. In between chapters that deal with the present, the reader is given the stories behind the other people who were on board the flight - the Batemans, the Kiplings, the security guard, the flight attendant, pilot, and co-pilot - filling in gaps that even Scott himself could not have known.
My Verdict: I will say this: there is a certain point in the story where you do not want to put the book down, and instead would rather power through to the end, sleep and work obligations be damned. But I am not sure it is for the reason the Hawley intended. Sure, I wanted to know what caused the plane to go down, but more than that, I wanted justice to be done to Bill Cunningham, the awful human being who took it upon himself to make a villain out of Scott just because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cunningham is the kind of TV figure that many people wish everyone would just stop paying attention to so that maybe he would go away, but we know that is not going to happen. As long as the guy talks loud enough, and says enough crazy things, people are going to continue to watch him. I doubt he was supposed to take up as much space in the reader's mind as he did in mine, but the result of the investigation became secondary to me. Which then led to the ending feeling somewhat, well, meh. And many of the reveals did not feel much like reveals, but more like ways to simply keep the story going beyond 300 pages.
Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Emma, Maggie Bateman's sister, throws her greedy hipster-idiot husband out of the house for being, well, basically a greedy hipster-idiot.
Favorite Character: No one in this book is a decent person. Even Scott. Sure, he swam for eight hours in chilly water and ended up saving four year-old JJ's life, but other than that, the guy is no saint. But on that heroic act alone, I suppose it's right to choose him.
Recommended Reading: If you are looking for other books that are more mystery than thriller, then I recommend Shelter by Jung Yun.