Tuesday, June 21, 2016

BEFORE THE FALL :: Noah Hawley

"Since when does how a thing looks matter more than what it is?"

Noah Hawley's latest has been billed as "the thriller of the summer." I won't quibble with that. It is indeed a page-turner that held me rapt from beginning to end, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that label, per se. If anything, I would argue that it sells the book short.

Before the Fall hit me in the guts but good. Not the mystery, which certainly involves tragedy, but the social commentary wrapped up in the mystery. Or perhaps it's the other way around and the mystery was really wrapped up in the social commentary. Either way you look at it, the book is a rightfully scathing look at how society reacts to tragedies these days.

Between the time I finished the book and started this review (the above two paragraphs), the devastating events in Orlando unfolded. Within hours, media was camped outside the home of the shooter's wife's family, located on the opposite coast in California. Granted, there is a huge story here, with much to learn and investigate, but how do we balance the right to privacy v. the right to information? How are these stories being sussed out and vetted? Are they being vetted at all or just being used to feed the media frenzy?

In Hawley's gripping thriller, eleven people get on a private plane for a quick hop home from Martha's Vineyard - a wealthy media mogul with his wife and two children, the mogul's body man, a friend/business associate (who is about to be indicted for his slimy financial dealings) and his wife, three crew members, and Scott Burroughs, a forty-something painter trying to revive his career, who had been invited along at the last minute by his acquaintance Maggie, the wife of the media mogul.

Not long after takeoff, the plane crashes into the ocean. Scott is one of two survivors. From there, Hawley takes the reader down various tracks. Interspersed with sections regarding the background of each person on the plane, Hawley takes us through the events following the crash, from Scott's perspective and that of the FBI/NTSB investigation.

Scott is hounded by the media, his house surrounded, causing him to hide out to avoid the constant intrusion. Of course, that does not stop the scrutiny and only feeds the machine on another level, as speculation regarding his relationship with Maggie and the woman whose house he's staying in become hot "news." There is no escape, for if Scott doesn't make himself available, the media still finds something to print.

So much of Before the Fall spoke to me on a visceral level about what occurs in real life after a tragedy. By going through each of the crash victims, Hawley is, of course, providing tidbits of information that fold into the mystery of whether the crash was an accident and, if not, might someone on the plane have been the cause. But these backgrounds were also a reminder that people lost their lives. They were not just statistics or news stories, they were human beings with their own stories and hopes and dreams and loves and flaws. Of course, these were fictional people, but this is something we can all stand to be reminded outside of the reading experience.

Through a completely villainous media character, Hawley also focuses on how news is sourced and presented. I thought the Bill Cunningham character was a perfect personification of how the need to hit the public with hot topics and scandal and beat the other guy to a story seem to win out over dignity and fairness and, perhaps, even truth. I'm trying to think of the last character I disliked so much, and anytime an author can evoke that level of feeling about a character, something is being done right.

I'm going way far afield here, but I found these aspects of Before the Fall really well done. They were not preachy so didn't seem out of place, and since they were perfectly commingled with a page-turning mystery, the reader doesn't have to buy into them or even acknowledge them to enjoy the book.

STREET SENSE:  If you like a page-turning mystery, don't hesitate to pick this one up. All the better if you enjoy character studies and a little social realism to go along with it. If it's huge twists and shocking revelations you live and die for, this might not scratch your itch, but I felt the conclusion was quite satisfying, particularly when I found so much of import along the way.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Once anointed a hero by your fellow man, you lose the right to privacy. You become an object, stripped of some unquantifiable humanity, as if you have won a cosmic lottery and woke one day to find yourself a minor deity. The Patron Saint of Good Luck. It stops mattering what you wanted for yourself. All that matters is the role you played in the lives of others. You are a rare butterfly held roughly at a right angle to the sun.

COVER NERD SAYS:  As a Blue-Minder, almost anything having to do with water, particularly the ocean, catches my eye, so this cover had a leg up. Even taking that into consideration I like this cover a whole bunch. The foggy image of the ocean and horizon are perfect for a mystery, and while font/title tricks can sometimes go awry, I think this one was clever and well done. This is a solid cover that would definitely catch my eye on a bookshop table.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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