MEG GARDINER is an American whose suspense novels were first published in the United Kingdom. She came to the attention of many American readers when Stephen King, writing for Entertainment Weekly, called her “the next suspense superstar.” Gardiner’s latest novel, UNSUB, is a cinematic thriller revolving around the return of a serial killer, nicknamed The Prophet, to the Bay Area two decades after his last killing — and Caitlin Hendrix, the daughter of the cop who never caught him, vowing to bring him to justice. Caitlin takes on a cunning killer who not only terrorized her childhood but also shifted the very course of her life. She’s a narcotics detective pulled into the task force investigation and finds herself racing to decipher his insane ritual of communications and killing. I spoke to Meg Gardiner over email about UNSUB, how she conceived and researched it, and how she wrote such a vivid, high-concept novel.
JEFF ABBOTT: UNSUB asks the dramatic question: “What if a killer like the Zodiac returned?” How did you come up with this premise?
MEG GARDINER: The premise found me. I grew up in California, where the Zodiac wasn’t a theoretical threat. He was a nightmare: a killer who wore an executioner’s hood, attacked young couples, then bragged about it to the police and media. He taunted the public, wrote still-unsolved cryptograms, and threatened to shoot kids on school buses. He sowed terror.
Then he disappeared. He’s never been identified.
I was haunted by that. And I wondered: If the Zodiac left the stage on his terms — somebody so violent, so vicious, so eager to play mind games and hungry for publicity — what’s to stop him from returning?
That was the genesis of UNSUB.
It’s the start of a series featuring investigator Caitlin Hendrix. Did you plan for this to be a series, or did Caitlin seem like she had more story to tell once you started writing?
Both! Caitlin has a will to seek justice — she’s a cop’s daughter and has a bone-deep conviction that wrongs need to be put right. She also loves the thrill of the hunt. There’s a world of stories for her to tackle.
Technology — how we can use it to both track and evade notice — plays a huge role in this book. How did you research these topics?
I could talk about our era of always-on communication, and our thirst to drink from the firehose of social media, and how the human desire to only connect leaves us vulnerable to online attacks. But that’s not what you want to know.
Yes, malware exists that allows bad actors to access the camera on your phone and computer, and thankfully I didn’t find that out while singing “My Heart Will Go On” in front of my laptop. If anybody says I did, they’re a liar.
No, I didn’t research niche online dating sites by signing up for Mime-Mates.com.
Maybe I spent time in online discussion forums, learning whether it’s possible to mask the signal from an electronic ankle monitor to avoid setting off the alarm if you violate the terms of your probation. Your probation. Not mine. I was nowhere near that Waffle House the night of the robbery.
And also for a serial killer who craves attention — technology now gives him a platform to bypass the press and the police and directly terrorize the populace. Do you think we’ll see that happen in real-life cases eventually?
If you can imagine it, so can a psychopath.
Picture bot armies swarming the Twitter feeds of people who mention a killer, to threaten them in shocking terms. Or a killer anonymously uploading a video of a murder to YouTube.
It’s only a matter of time.
UNSUB has sold to CBS as a TV series. It’s a very cinematic book, and I mean that in a good way. How did you approach the action sequences to make the story so visually compelling?
Before I write, I mentally place myself in a scene. I paint a visual canvas for readers, so they can picture the narrative playing field. When we read, the action hits the mind, not the eye. To create a visceral impact like the one we get from watching movies, I concentrate on motion, color, light, and action and reaction. And of course, I throw obstacles in the path of the characters. That’s Plotting 101.
Above all, I remember: What counts most is a scene’s emotional impact. Action must reveal character, tighten tension, move the story forward, and raise or resolve vital questions. Thrillers can give readers a roller-coaster ride. That ride must be emotional.
A theme throughout UNSUB is Caitlin’s damaged relationship with her father, who hunted “The Prophet” during his first ritualized killings. How did the character of Mack Hendrix come about, and what does he say about those left behind after a serial killer has destroyed so many lives?
Police officers who work serial killings can suffer devastating PTSD. Mack Hendrix saw too much, cared too much, and took the case home with him. It broke him emotionally and tore his family apart. The effects of violence ripple and never entirely die out. Decades after a real case is closed, the cops who worked it may still visit victims’ graves. We owe these investigators our gratitude for facing the worst of humanity on our behalf.
One compelling character in the story is a crime blogger who is obsessed with The Prophet killings; do you think blogs, podcasts, et cetera, have changed the way we learn about famous crimes?
Inevitably. We’ve always been fascinated by true crime. These days, instead of reading pulp magazines like True Detective, we listen to Serial and post on the discussion boards on Zodiackiller.com.
Humans are curious. Give us an unanswered question, and we hunger for the solution. Give us an unanswered, salacious, or creepy question, and we get FindTheProphet.com, the website Deralynn Hobbs runs in the novel.
On sites like these, amateurs dip their toes into investigative waters. They can build virtual libraries of case information — or can defame and endanger people with wild accusations. A crowd-sourced amateur manhunt can veer wildly off track, as happened after the Boston Marathon bombing, when online sleuths wrongly accused an innocent man.
Don’t get me started on keyboard cowboys who call out serial killers online, posting their own phone numbers and daring a murderer to meet them in person if he’s “man enough.”
Was it a research challenge to write about a crime case that covers so many jurisdictions? Did it give you thoughts on how jurisdictions should work better together in real-life cases?
The Zodiac killed in Benicia, Vallejo, Napa, and San Francisco. That greatly complicated the investigation. In the novel, I could shape the geography to thwart the investigation as much or little as I pleased. These days, law enforcement agencies often form task forces to combine their investigative power. But city limits, county lines, and Welcome to Arkansas remain a prime reason that some serial killers choose interstate highways as their hunting grounds.
There have been so many serial killer novels, but UNSUB felt fresh and compelling. How did you avoid some of the overused tropes of this kind of story?
I watched every movie and reread every novel I could, telling myself: “Been done. Done. Done. Don’t do that.” Ax? No. Chainsaw? Oh, come on. Killer dresses in a onesie and sucks a pacifier? Maybe next time.
Serial killers fascinate us. We want to understand what drives them — sadism, rage, twisted fantasies? We want to believe that if we can decipher their minds and motives, we would be the target who survives an attack.
The antagonist in any story must be powerful, motivated, and individual. In UNSUB, I created the killer’s secret world. The Prophet plays mind games and marks his victims’ bodies with the astrological sign for Mercury. I delved into codes, poetry, and ancient symbolism, as well as modern hacking.
I wanted to create a killer whose goal is powerful, but veiled. Caitlin can only stop him by uncovering that goal. Her relentless pursuit pulls readers along for the ride.
The way the plot unfurls in UNSUB is particularly clever; do you outline in detail before you start, or do you just jump in and work out the interlocking pieces in rewrite?
I brainstorm and outline before I ever write one word of fiction. I never jump in. I’ve tried that, and end up floundering. If you ever come upon me trapped in a paper bag, flailing to get out, you’ll know I threw myself unprepared into drafting a novel.
What is next for Caitlin Hendrix?
The sequel to UNSUB — Into the Black Nowhere. Caitlin hunts a slick, charming killer across the western United States, from Austin to Oregon.