Book Notes: A plane crash whodunit in ‘Before the Fall’
“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley. Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2016. 391 pages. $26.
In late August, a nine-seat private jet with eight passengers and three crew members takes off from Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a foggy, balmy night. The jet ascends to 12,000 feet, stays aloft for 18 minutes, then plummets, nose first, into dark, deep seas. The passengers are wealthy, powerful people. Only two people survive the crash, and their survival is deemed close to miraculous. There are as many reasons as passengers for why this crash may not have been an accident. Award-winning TV producer, screenwriter and novelist Noah Hawley’s “Before the Fall” brings summer to a close with a rather emphatic bang bang bang.
Cast of characters:
James Melody: Responsible pilot who’d rather not bother with relationship entanglements so that he can more readily attend to his work transporting the top 1 percent safely to their destinations. Diligent, uncompromising, competent. He happens to notice that the jet’s control column seems a tad stiff. He orders the co-pilot to run diagnostics while he examines the plane’s exterior. Self-important co-pilot smarts at the directive but complies.
Charles Busch: The unscheduled, unshaven co-pilot who volunteers for the flight in order to get some time alone with the beautiful flight attendant who dumped him six months earlier. He’s hung over from copious booze and cocaine, and he’s nursing a stinging rejection. Unfortunately, he naps through the diagnostic test he’s been told to run. How are we to know whether the jet’s instruments are defective?
Emma Lightner: Smart and beautiful, she is the flight attendant who values professionalism over men’s tiresome advances and their wives’ jealous retribution. She slaps Busch, the co-pilot, when he makes another of his repulsive advances. “I am not done with you yet,” he mutters.
David Bateman: Wealthy head of ALC, the country’s number one news network, akin to FOX. His cable news model, though wildly successful, nonetheless incites all the fringe types. He’s the constant target of extremists acting out, requiring a bodyguard and high security.
Maggie Bateman: David’s young wife. A full-time mother to their two children. Likeable, attractive and friendly, she is responsible for keeping the family bonded and as close to “normal” as is possible, given their wealth and fame.
Rachel Bateman: The Bateman’s 9-year-old daughter, who is unscarred by her earlier kidnapping, which included the sadistic murder of her nanny. No one is sure whether all the culprits from the kidnapping were apprehended.
JJ Bateman: The Bateman’s 4-year-old son. JJ is one of the two survivors of the plane’s nosedive into the 65 degree waters of the Atlantic. JJ inherits his family’s wealth, estimated at $133 million. He is placed in the care of his mother’s sister, Eleanor, and her vile, money-grubbing husband Doug. No good can come of this peculiar union. And mute, traumatized JJ must bear witness to the arguments and unrest.
Scott Burroughs: The novel’s protagonist. He’s an artist, 47, until recently down on his luck. He’s good looking, smart, celibate and a recovering alcoholic living a secluded life in a Vineyard cottage. His new, large canvases depict disasters, like a tornado and a massive conflagration. Is he obsessed with disaster, the FBI wants to know? Did he play out one of his disaster scenarios on the plane? Out of his seat at the time of the plane crash, Scott is the other survivor. He finds JJ in the fiery waters post-crash and despite a dislocated shoulder, swims eight hours with the boy on his back. A tense early chapter describes the swim, which involves an enormous rogue wave and a possible shark. Man and boy drag ashore in Montauk, Long Island, dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia. In no time this off-beat artist goes from national hero to suspect. His interactions with JJ are warm and make up the loving heartbeat at the core of this novel.
Ben Kipling: His estimated worth is $300 million. He launders the fortunes of businessmen and government officials from countries hostile to the United States. He steps on the jet just minutes after discovering that he is about to be arrested the following morning by federal agents. He was not scheduled to be on this plane, but the FBI wants to know if he was the target of a terrorist plot or his company, badly in need of a scapegoat.
Sarah Kipling: Ben’s friendly but clueless wife who talks too much and who has tiresome thoughts that, sadly, make her the weakest character in this otherwise strong thriller.
Gil Baruch: David Bateman’s body man and leader of the security team. At 48, he’s lean, tall and fierce. He’s an Israeli ex-pat with an eagle eye, a relentless watchfulness and inhuman stamina. He is not buckled in when the plane crashes, and bullet holes in the cockpit’s door captured by an underwater camera match his gun. An ex-pat with an agenda? No one knows.
Bill Cunningham: This narcissistic lead broadcaster at ALC was discovered by David Bateman. Make news, don’t follow it — the ALC brand that Cunningham personifies. Versed in whipping up conspiracy theories as fluffy and light as Cool Whip, he begins wiretapping phones and demonizing Scott Burroughs. Will his usual tactics work on Burroughs, an artist with a nonlinear way of looking at things?
Jack LaLanne: A real-life character who, early on, inspires Scott Burroughs to learn to swim and join his school’s swim team. He grabs hold of Jack’s motto, “When life gets hard, you need to get harder,” like it’s a flotation device.
There you have it. A plane crash. A bunch of suspicious characters, a couple of them rather vile. A few inspirational moments to warm the heart. A clever author. A boatload of trouble. And a very tense series of discoveries made as we race to the end of summer and our page-turner of the season.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.