Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of "Before The Fall" by Noah Hawley

Multimillionaire David Bateman - who runs a conservative TV news station (something like Fox news) - charters a private plane to fly his family from their vacation retreat in Martha's Vineyard to their home in New York City.

On board are:
Bateman, his wife Maggie, and their children Rachel (9) and JJ (4).
Gil, the family's head of security, whose firm was hired after a kidnapping.
Ben and Sarah Kipling, wealthy friends of the Batemans. Ben is a Wall Street operator who's being investigated for illegal money laundering.
Scott Burroughs, a recovering alcoholic and artist who's trying to revitalize his career.
The plane's pilot, copilot, and cabin attendant.

After a smooth take-off the plane crashes into the Atlantic Ocean 18 minutes into the flight. Scott Burroughs and JJ survive, and Burroughs - pulling JJ behind him - swims for 8 hours to come ashore on Montauk Beach. Burroughs is initially hailed as a hero. However, bombastic newscaster Bill Cunningham (a friend and employee of David Bateman) relentlessly throws out accusations and insinuations about the artist.

Cunningham suggests that Burroughs was having an affair with Maggie Bateman; that he might have caused the crash; that he's after the Bateman fortune; and so on. Burroughs also comes under intense scrutiny from a determined FBI agent who thinks the artist's paintings - which depict disasters - make him a very suspicious character. All this exemplifies the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished."

Various agencies investigate the crash, whose cause is not immediately clear. Was it a terrorist attack? Sabotage? An equipment malfunction? Human error? In rotating chapters the book shifts between the crash probe, the backstory of each character, and what's going on now. For example, JJ is taken in by his aunt and her hard-drinking, unsuccessful, would-be restaurateur husband - who can't hide his glee at the thought of 'sharing' JJ's inheritance. And Burroughs takes shelter in the luxurious Manhattan apartment of a sexy billionaire socialite, who likes the idea of secretly harboring a hero.

As the story unfolds revelations indicate that many characters have something to hide, be it illegal activities; secret insecurities; selfish and craven natures; etc. The people are well-drawn, interesting, and realistic. I hated big-mouth newsman Bill Cunningham. On the other hand I liked no-nonsense bodyguard Gil, who knew his job and did it well. Other characters are equally well-rounded.

After retrieving the wreckage, the black box, and the flight recorder, the government investigators discover the cause of the crash. The ending will probably satisfy some readers and disappoint others (like me).

This book got lots of great reviews but it was just okay for me. I was hoping the story would be more about the nuts and bolts of the crash investigation. Instead, it focuses on the characters, who - though engaging - aren't that unique in the annals of literature. Still, it's an entertaining story, good for a beach or plane read (or maybe not).

One more thought: the author has a kind of writing tic where the characters - when asked a question - "think about" the response: JJ thinks about this; Burroughs thinks about this; Rachel thinks about this; Maggie thinks about this; they think about this; and so on. I found this distracting.

Rating: 3 stars

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