Noah Hawley’s terrific thriller “Before the Fall” begins one August evening as a private plane awaits passengers on a runway in Martha’s Vineyard. The plane has been chartered by David Bateman, a Republican political kingmaker who has founded a wildly profitable — and proudly right-wing — cable news network. Bateman is traveling with his wife, Maggie, the couple’s two young children, the family’s Israeli-born bodyguard, a friend who’s a financier facing indictment for money laundering, and a modestly successful painter to whom Maggie offered a flight back to the city.
Just before takeoff, the author tells us: “As she does at a thousand random moments out of every day, Maggie feels a swell of motherly love, ballooning and desperate. They are her life, these children.” After that lovely moment comes a punch: “None of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea.”
Crash it does, and soon readers and federal officials alike are struggling to understand why. It’s an irresistible mystery and, for the icing on his fictional cake, Hawley adds a satirical portrait of a cable news star named Bill Cunningham that will delight some readers and outrage others.
Moments after the crash, Scott, the painter, struggling in the water amid burning debris, fearing sharks, sees no other survivors. A competitive swimmer in his youth, he heads in what he hopes is the direction of Martha’s Vineyard, only to find the Batemans’ 4-year-old son, JJ, clinging to a seat cushion. Miraculously, swimming for hours in the dark and cold, Scott carries the boy to safety.
As news of the disaster spreads, Scott is hailed as a hero. The National Transportation Safety Board questions him with respect, but then a hostile FBI agent sniffs terrorism and suggests that Scott might have somehow caused the crash. What was a penniless painter doing on the plane, he demands. Was he having an affair with Mrs. Bateman?
The agent’s insinuations are broadcast nationally by Cunningham, whom Bateman had transformed from a washed-up reporter into a $10-million-a-year cable superstar. Cunningham, an “angry white guy” who claims to speak for the Average Joe, warns his millions of followers that the crash is “an act of terrorism, if not by foreign nationals then by certain elements of the liberal media.” He sees Scott as a loser, a nobody, yet somehow central to the conspiracy: “Yes, I know they’re saying he rescued a four-year-old boy, but who is he and what was he doing on that plane?” The question becomes whether Scott, having survived the ocean’s sharks, can survive those of the cable-news universe.
Scott has bonded with JJ, who rarely speaks to anyone else. The boy has gone to live with his mother’s sister, Eleanor, a good woman who’s married to a jerk. The husband is indifferent to the boy but thrilled at the prospect of controlling the fortune the child has inherited. Scott is increasingly focused on both the boy and Eleanor, even as the FBI threatens to arrest him.
NTSB officials launch an intensive search for the bodies of missing passengers, as well as for the plane, the black box and cockpit voice recorder they hope will explain the crash. The search, the NTSB’s man confides, is the kind that occurs “when the President of the United States makes a phone call” and in fact it recalls the one in July 1999 after the plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr., and carrying his wife and sister-in-law, went down en route to Martha’s Vineyard. What caused this new tragedy? Did the Bateman plane malfunction? Was it targeted by a missile? Was a bomb hidden aboard, perhaps by enemies of the network or by co-conspirators in the money laundering scheme? Or might someone on the plane have deliberately caused the disaster? Readers can look for clues in chapters devoted to the background of each passenger and the plane’s three-member crew.
Hawley, the author of four previous novels and the creator of the TV show “Fargo,” here has spun a tale that’s at once an intriguing puzzle, a tasty satire and a painful story of human loss.
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Noah Hawley
Grand Central. 400 pp. $26