My 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.