Before the Fall Summary

Noah Hawley

Before the Fall

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Before the Fall Summary

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Before the Fall is a 2016 novel by Noah Hawley. Hawley employs a character-centric approach combined with an unreliable element to craft a suspenseful story that plays with the tropes of conspiracy theory and whose structure and style are not dissimilar to the television writing Hawley is famous for.

The novel opens with a private jet preparing to take off from Martha’s Vineyard. Hawley muses on how people who are perfect strangers find themselves together unpredictably. The crew is introduced as pilot James Melody, co-pilot Charles Busch, and flight attendant Emma Lightner. The family that has hired the plane arrives: David Bateman, a conservative media mogul, his younger wife, Maggie, and their two children, Rachel and four-year-old J.J., as well as their security chief and family friend Gil Baruch; the family has had constant security ever since Rachel was kidnapped several years before.

The family is very close and have been vacationing, though Maggie is feeling distant from her older husband. Family friends Ben and Sarah Kipling arrive for the flight, followed finally by Scott Burroughs, a painter. Maggie has invited him at the last minute, feeling an inarticulate attraction to him. Ben is facing charges from the FBI due to shady business practices and wants David’s advice.

The plane takes off in inclement weather, crashing sixteen minutes later. Scott comes to floating in the water. He and J.J. are the only survivors of the crash that he can see; he straps the child to a seat cushion flotation device and calls on his skills as a former champion swimmer (inspired by old Jack LaLanne videos) to make for shore, saving the boy’s life. Scott has no memory of the events preceding rescuing the boy. Magnus, his friend and fellow artist, assists him in sneaking out of the hospital; they steal doctor’s scrubs to evade the press.

The National Transportation Safety Board responds to the crash, led by Gus Franklin. Gus investigates the crash and befriends Scott, urging him to do his best to remember what happened. Magnus wants to take Scott to a house owned by billionaire Leslie Mueller, who has taken an interest in Scott because of his heroics, but Scott has a flashback to the flight where Emma was arguing with Charlie, and ditches Magnus, instead, calling Gus and telling him he wants to help figure out what happened.

J.J. is released from the hospital and sent to live with his aunt and uncle, who stand to benefit greatly from his $100 million inheritance. Scott hides from the media and works to recover his memories, visiting J.J. and forming a close bond with the boy, who doesn’t speak to anyone else. J.J.’s Aunt is very nice, but his uncle is only concerned with controlling the boy’s money.

Bill Cunningham, a conservative talk show host who was also close to David Bateman, latches onto the crash story as a way of saving his failing career (due to a phone-tapping scandal), concocting an outlandish conspiracy theory about the crash that his audience eats up. Scott becomes a focus of the investigation when it’s discovered that his paintings all depict disasters, including plane crashes. When the media discovers Scott is staying at Leslie’s, more conspiracy theories sprout. Cunningham insinuates that Scott was having an affair with Maggie, but also suggests terrorism connected to Ben’s money-laundering charges.

Gus pursues the investigation. Bodies are recovered, confirming that no one else survived the crash. Gus learns that one of the pilots’ bodies was found on the wrong side of the cockpit door, and there are bullet holes in the door. Charlie Busch’s toxicology report finds evidence of alcohol and cocaine in his system. Finally, the “black box,” the data and voice recorders from the plane, are recovered and analyzed.

Gus informs Scott of the bullet holes as Scott prepares for an interview with Bill. During the interview, something clicks into place for Scott and he remembers what happened; the data and voice recorders provide further details. The story switches to Emma’s point-of-view before the flight. She’d been in a relationship with Charlie Busch, who was an abusive drug addict. When Emma encountered Charlie at a party, she had resisted his advances and told him to stay away from her. Charlie was bitter and angry about it. When Charlie had become aggressive, Emma slapped him. Scott had witnessed another unhappy encounter between the two on the flight.

Later, when the pilot, James, had to leave the cockpit due to a sudden nosebleed, Charlie locked the cockpit door behind him, began calling Emma names in an unhinged rant, and deliberately crashed the plane while everyone tried to stop him. Gil Baruch fired into the cockpit door in an attempt to gain access to the cockpit.

In the end, all of the conspiracy theories are shown to be nothing but fevered imagination; the events that caused the crash were much more personal and mundane than anything the media had cooked up.