We’re getting down to the wire – the MWA Edgar Awards banquet is just four days away in NYC and I am posting my final review in the read, review, and ranking for the Best Novel category. I previously completed the Best Paperback Original and Best First Novel by an American Author categories. The nominee: Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall. This is his first Edgar nom.
You might know Hawley as a novelist, or you might know him as a screenwriter and producer (Fargo, Legion, others). He’s won Emmys, Golden Globes and Peabody awards. I read one of his previous books – A Conspiracy of Tall Men – and found it entertaining. It is similar to Before the Fall in that it takes a pretty ordinary guy, puts him into extraordinary circumstances, and then ramps up a mystery with a big dose of conspiracy. The books (at least the two I’ve read) are very cinematic.
In Before the Fall, nice guy and artist Scott Burroughs accepts an offer of a lift on a private plane from Maggie Bateman, a casual friend, the young wife of the head of a television news network, David Bateman. Also on the plane are Rachel and JJ, the couple’s young daughter and son; their security chief, Gil Baruch; Ben and Sarah Kipling, a Wall Street hedge fund manager about to be indicted for money laundering and his wife. There is also the three-person crew: beautiful flight attendant Emma Lightner, pilot James Melody who is having some medical issues, and hard-partying co-pilot Charlie Busch. Just 18 minutes into the flight from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC, the plane crashes into the ocean. Scott comes up into a hellish view, as the plane fuel is on fire, and he soon encounters the only other survivor – four year old JJ. Scott swims ten miles with an injured arm, carrying the child.
The book alternates between what happens to Scott and JJ, as time moves forward, and the individual backstories of the plane’s passengers and crew. As the authorities search for the wreckage, theories as to the cause of the crash abound. Newsman Bill Cunningham (my mind’s eye pictured Bill O’Reilly) had been about to be fired from Bateman’s network, but instead he makes ratings soar with speculation about the cause of the crash, anchoring a lot of his wild ramblings to Scott Burroughs. The depths of his amoral self-interest… well, let’s just say the depths or so deep we’re not sure there’s a bottom. Scott and the boy have forged a bond that is unquestionable, but of course it is questioned, and JJ’s loving Aunt Eleanor is married to a man best described as “loser scumbag” (expect attraction to hero Scott and you will be right on).
I liked Before the Fall when I read it the first time, carried along on the tide of the plot, the sneak peeks into the characters’ backstories, and the insights Hawley provides along the way before revealing the reason for the crash. Rereading more critically for the Edgar ranking, I still see the good. Some of the backstories, in particular, are like short stories in themselves (pilot James Melody and his mom, for example).
But I see the book’s flaws more clearly this time around. The good guys are uber-good. The bad guys are uber-bad. Coincidence abounds: Scott almost misses the plane, but doesn’t. His big new idea for his paintings is a series of hyper-realistic depictions of tragedies, including a plane crash. He is capable of the huge, heroic swim because as a child he had seen and been inspired by a feat of swimming derring-do by the famous Jack LaLanne, so he devoted himself to the sport. The pilot leaves the cockpit because he has a bloody nose, something he’d been delaying seeing a doctor for, leaving the way clear for a homocidal/suicidal act that dooms them all. And the climax – where Scott is live on-camera with Bill Cunningham when the newsman plays a tape that reveals he had been bugging victim’s phones to dig up dirt and Scott is able to reveal exactly what the FBI found out – is completely over the top.
And yet, I still like the book. My friend and writing colleague Addy Whitehouse is also rating these nominees, and she gave Before the Fall a 1. And that’s not #1, it’s the best, it’s 1 on a 10-point scale, with 10 as high. You can read her review here – she really hated the head-hopping and varying POVs. She noted the cinematic approach, and not in admiration. On the there hand, we were in total agreement on Reed Farrel Coleman’s Where it Hurts. All of which proves why there are so many books published each year – opinions differ!
Where does Before the Fall go on the ranking? Definitely not above mid-pack – Where it Hurts and Jane Steele are clearly superior. And I can’t get around The Ex’s OMG twister of an ending (seriously?). So that leaves Noah Hawley at #3. If the MWA judges agree with me, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele will take home the Edgar.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel