Friday, June 17, 2016

Tragedy. Mystery and Media

Before the Fall

By Noah Hawley

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Pub Date: May 31, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In Before the Fall, we get a novel that works on many layers. It is a mystery, a suspense novel, a portrayal of a man being changed by tragedy, and a social commentary on the nature of our news media. The amazing thing is not that it all works but it does work so effortlessly pulling us into each page right to the tense and surprising ending.

A private plane is about to take off. Its passengers include a media mogul and his family, a financial manager who is suspected of money laundering and his wife, a struggling painter, and the three person flight crew. Fifteen minutes after take-off, the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are the painter and the four year old son of the media mogul.

This is the premise that drives the novel. While the focus is on Scott, the painter who is trying to get his life back together even before the crash, each character gives us a glimpse of some important facet of the story. Those glimpses into the characters help us find out what happened to the plane as well as throwing us a few red herrings. The novel effortlessly moves back and forth through time as the puzzle is solved. There are a number of incidents and possible culprits that may tell something about why the plane plunged into the ocean. We see a classic ploy here; the idea of a number of unconnected characters merging into a significant and dramatic event. It is a scenario that is common to the literary scene. Yet the meat of the novel involves Scott and the aftermath of the crash. He is trying to define himself as people call him a hero. He does not see himself as a hero and shuns the spotlight. Yet the media alternately labels him hero, villain, and suspect through events beyond his control. He is our main connection with the present as the investigators try to find out what went wrong with only a four year old boy and a down-and-out recovering alcoholic artist as the witnesses.

Then there is Bill Cunningham, a news anchorman who is a cross between Glenn Beck and Bill O’ Reilly. Frankly there is nothing likable about Cunningham. He represents our modern media where the news is replaced by outrage and innuendos. He is the one who understand that the insatiable appetite of viewers centers on massaging their egos and telling them what they want to hear. Cunningham knows how to do his job and the introverted Scott appears to be a good target. Cunningham first appears to be a minor character but soon become a catalyst to the satisfying climax. The contrast between the intricate government investigators who want the truth and the new media who just want a story is beautifully set up. It is what moves this to being an intelligent mystery to the type of story that becomes a moving commentary on our “Breaking News” society.

The author Noah Hawley knows how to structure a story with a wide range of characters, both major and minor. Hawley manages to keep Scott as the center while never losing sight of the mystery and how the rest of the protagonists are involved. This is the type of novel that should appeal to everyone and not just the mystery fans. In fact, I would say the mystery takes a back seat to character development especially in regards to our troubled artist. Nonetheless, when the mystery is solved, it and Scot with his present and escalating problems collide into a shunning ending. So far, this is the book to read this year.

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