Evidently, it’s not enough that Noah Hawley is the brilliant creator/showrunner behind Fargo and Legion, two indisputable gems of contemporary TV. As it turns out, he’s also an accomplished novelist, as evidenced by Before the Fall (2016), a riveting, time-jumping mystery that digs its hooks in early and never lets go.
In Martha’s Vineyard, a private luxury jet takes off, shuttling eleven people to New York City. Just sixteen minutes later, the plane crashes into the Atlantic Ocean. But impossibly, two people survive—a failed, middle-aged painter named Scott Burroughs, and JJ Bateman, the four-year-old son of a millionaire television news network magnate. Somehow, Scott—who hit his head during the crash and can’t remember the details—manages to save the boy and get them both back to shore, but that is most certainly not the end of the story. An investigation of the crash and its victims pulls back the shroud, gradually revealing the truth about the plane’s passengers and crew and how their complicated lives all connect. But even as the facts emerge, the distorting lens of the media bends the tragedy into unrecognizable shapes. Caught in the middle is Scott, a man who thought he knew the truth about himself, forced to reconcile his very sense of identity against the ever-shifting unreality of media reports that arbitrarily paint him as the hero and and the villain of a momentous, controversial event.
Before the Fall’s premise is an ingenious hook. It introduces a planeful of passengers, kills most of them, then flashes back to flesh out their personalities in a sequence that strategically feeds information forward into the mystery-solving plot. But the novel doesn’t just settle for this entertaining structural sleight of hand. It layers a nuanced and fascinating theme over it, using Scott’s confused post-crash experiences to examine the fine line between truth and fantasy in our media-distorted world. The wealth and privilege of the plane’s victims lends an air of moneyed conspiracy, warranted or not, to the tragic event, shining light on the odd way modern society interfaces with information. In this sense, Before the Fall adds thought-provoking commentary to its addictive puzzle-solving mystery. A blazing fast, timely, and highly satisfying read.