“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah HawleyMy book group read Before the Fall a few months ago, but I was unable to attend that meeting—and when I saw that the book was about a plane crash, I decided to give it a miss. I can sometimes be a nervous flyer, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to read a novel on the subject shortly before I was due to embark on a 10-hour transatlantic flight.

When the book won this year’s Edgar Award for best novel, however, I figured I should check it out. Unlike every other mystery award, the Edgar is peer-reviewed, and the people on the committee read tons of books. As a result, the winning entry has to be interesting and different enough to captivate a group of readers who are accomplished writers themselves.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Before the Fall is how incredibly timely it feels, despite the fact that it was published a year ago and written well before that. The story deals with  the intersection of a couple of very wealthy families and a Fox News-type network, which is drumming up ratings by exploiting a family tragedy (shades of the Seth Rich story). I was half-expecting a politician with small hands and bad hair to show up.

The mysterious crash of the luxury private jet, which was flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, killed nine people and left two survivors: four-year-old JJ Bateman and painter Scott Burroughs, who had been invited aboard the flight by JJ’s mom Maggie. The wife of David Bateman, head of the Fox-like network ALC News, Maggie had taken an interest in Scott’s art and impulsively asked if he’d like to join them when she found out he was heading to the city for some meetings.

Not quite a starving artist, but not a terribly successful one either, Scott was trying to turn his life around after recovering from alcoholism. He had painted a series of large-scale works depicting disasters—an oncoming tornado, a house on fire, and even a plane crash—before stepping aboard the doomed aircraft. Scott’s unlikely survival, and the motif of his paintings, make him an object of suspicion to ALC News’ O’Reilly-like news anchor, Bill Cunningham (“the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world”). Ironically, before he died, David Bateman had made moves to push Bill off the air, because he’d been caught tapping the phone of a rival broadcaster. Before he could get rid of him, David died, and Bill immediately turned his old boss into a martyr, promising every night that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of what had really happened to that flight.

Before the Fall is a dense 400-page novel, and it probably could have been cut by 50 pages if Hawley, writer and showrunner for FX’s acclaimed series “Fargo,” hadn’t spent quite so much time waxing philosophical. A random example: “We believe we have invented our machine world to benefit ourselves, but how do we know we aren’t here to serve it? A camera must be aimed to be a camera. To service a microphone, a question must be asked. Twenty-four hours a day, frame after frame, we feed the hungry beast, locked in perpetual motion as we race to film it all. Does television exist for us to watch, in other words, or do we exist to watch television?”

Because I read a lot of thrillers that are only trying to deliver the purest adrenaline rush possible, I actually appreciated a lot of Hawley’s flowery musings, but after a certain point, I just wanted to find out what had happened to the plane. But I’m guessing that willingness to grapple with The Big Questions is what made the committee select After the Fall for the award. Many years from now, this is the sort of book people will turn to in order to find out what life was like in this peculiar era.

“Rubbernecker” by Belinda Bauer

RubberneckerHave you ever been bored out of your skull by some acclaimed prestige-TV series, wondered what all the fuss is about, and been assured that you just have to keep watching, because it gets really good around episode eight? My response is usually to change the channel, and in the case of Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker, it’s very likely I would have given up on the book about a quarter of the way in were it not for the fact that I was reading it for my book group. I hate going to group when I haven’t read the whole book; it makes me feel like a slacker. So I persevered, and ultimately, I’m very glad I did.

Rubbernecker has an absolutely genius concept, but it doesn’t really become clear until about halfway through the book. Before that, we get chapters told from several points of view. There’s Patrick, who has Asperger’s and has been fascinated with death ever since his father was struck by a car and killed right in front of him; Patrick has enrolled in medical school, not because he wants to become a doctor, but because he wants to dissect a cadaver in order to learn more about death. We also meet Patrick’s mom, who doesn’t understand and frankly doesn’t much like her only child. Then there’s Sam, who has awakened in a coma ward after being gravely injured in an accident—he is now suffering from locked-in syndrome, so he is able to think clearly but can’t communicate. He believes he has witnessed the murder of one of his fellow patients, but has no way of letting anyone know. Tracy, a nurse on Sam’s ward, is obsessed with trying to seduce the husband of another coma patient, somewhat to the detriment of the rest of her charges.

How do all of these stories intersect? I don’t want to spoil the surprise, because once the reader figures out what’s going on, it’s extremely satisfying to see how everything clicks into place. But getting there can be a bit of a chore. The book can also be rather gruesome, since we are dealing with cadavers and the murder of helpless patients. Still, by the time I got into the second half of Rubbernecker, I realized I was in the capable hands of a diabolically clever author, and all of that set-up did indeed serve a purpose. This book isn’t for everybody, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to read something a little different, and is willing to stick with it.

“The Forgotten Girls” by Owen Laukkanen

The Forgotten GirlsThis is the sixth book featuring FBI agents Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere. I’ve been reading this series since the beginning (2012’s The Professionals), and this is probably my least favorite so far. For one thing, it’s a serial killer novel; for another, the killer’s motives are not terribly interesting. Since many chapters are told from his point of view, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that he’s your basic men’s rights type of guy. “He’d been nice to women, smiled, listened to them. Opened doors, held out chairs, paid for countless dinners. Tolerated every annoyance, jumped through every hoop placed before him, and still no woman had ever returned his affection. No woman had ever treated him with anything but cruelty.” May as well slaughter them, am I right?!

Stevens and Windermere are on the trail, as is a young woman whose best friend was murdered and is out for vengeance. The agents are hoping to find her before she becomes a victim herself.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, Laukkanen talks about his motivation for writing the book—the apathetic law enforcement response when a real-life killer in Canada went after women who were primarily prostitutes of Native descent. I did some reading about the actual case, which is a lot more disturbing than the fictional account. One of the police detectives assigned to the case wrote: “There was a mindset that these were disposable women, that these victims chose this life… so we’re not going to put ourselves out in quite the same way that we might if it’s somebody’s daughter from [The University of British Columbia].”

None of those online articles tried to come up with a motivation; Laukkanen’s books always have chapters written from the point of view of the “bad guy” (or gal), so his formula required him to come up with something. I kind of wish he’d skipped it in this case, though. The “women should be nicer to me!” angle almost trivializes the heinous crimes. Serial killers are sick, twisted people; trying to rationalize their actions, even if the writer is well-meaning, makes for a seriously unpleasant reading experience.

“The Long Firm” by Jake Arnott

The Long Firm by Jake ArnottThe Long Firm by Jake Arnott was first published in 1999, and while it’s available as an ebook in the U.K., it’s out of print in the U.S. That is a shame, because The Long Firm is, in my opinion, a masterpiece. I hope it will someday be rediscovered and given its due. (It was turned into a BBC miniseries a dozen years ago; it’s not on any of the streaming services, but parts of it seem to have been uploaded illegally to YouTube.)

This is Arnott’s first novel—he has since published a few others, which I look forward to reading—and what is most striking about this book is its colossal ambition. It is divided into five parts, each of which has a different narrator. The one thing they all have in common is their relationship to the gangster Harry Starks, who is in competition with the notorious Kray twins for the title of king of the London underworld. While Starks is Arnott’s fictional creation, the Krays, and several other characters, from Johnnie Ray to Joe Meek to Judy Garland, are real. One reason it took me almost a week to read The Long Firm is because I kept looking up things online to find out what was based in reality; Arnott was born in 1961, so he obviously has no first-hand knowledge of the period, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research.

The five narrators don’t have a lot in common—one is a member of the House of Lords, a couple are crooks, one’s a criminologist, and one is an actress who became a showgirl when work dried up. They all become sucked into Harry’s orbit, which, unsurprisingly, is not a particularly safe place to be. He may appear to be a generous soul, but the bill always comes due eventually, and being obligated to Harry Starks can be very dangerous indeed.

Besides Harry, another person we get to know through the eyes of the narrators is Detective Chief Inspector Mooney, a bent cop who frequently aids Starks and his compatriots by turning a blind eye to their criminal schemes or, in some cases, actively abetting them. It could be argued that Mooney is more of a villain than Harry, since at least the gangster isn’t making a show of serving and protecting the populace. Some antihero-loving readers may wish for Harry to get away with his crimes, but I doubt anyone will be rooting for Mooney.

As a homosexual and a Jew, Harry is an outsider, albeit one who knows which people to cultivate (Mooney, Lord Thursby) in order to gain access to the corridors of power. “He is fascinated by the world of privilege,” says Thursby. “A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose… He has a great admiration for upper-class men of action like Lawrence of Arabia or Gordon of Khartoum. Empire heroes and explorers he no doubt read of in picture books. And in his own way he sought to emulate them, to find some respectable and gentlemanly way to demand money with menaces. Some way of jumping the counter of middle classness straight into aristocracy.”

This is an exceptional literary thriller. As of this writing, used copies are available for under $4 (including shipping!) at ABEBooks.com—a real steal.