Maybe next time. That’s Plotting 101. Humans are curious. The Prophet plays mind games and marks his victims’ bodies with the astrological sign for Mercury. Don’t do that.” Ax? That was the genesis of UNSUB. Killer dresses in a onesie and sucks a pacifier? Police officers who work serial killings can suffer devastating PTSD. We’ve always been fascinated by true crime. I watched every movie and reread every novel I could, telling myself: “Been done. I was nowhere near that Waffle House the night of the robbery. There have been so many serial killer novels, but UNSUB felt fresh and compelling. Before I write, I mentally place myself in a scene. The antagonist in any story must be powerful, motivated, and individual. 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? What is next for Caitlin Hendrix? The sequel to UNSUB — Into the Black Nowhere. Your probation. I delved into codes, poetry, and ancient symbolism, as well as modern hacking. They can build virtual libraries of case information — or can defame and endanger people with wild accusations. Caitlin hunts a slick, charming killer across the western United States, from Austin to Oregon. Did you plan for this to be a series, or did Caitlin seem like she had more story to tell once you started writing? 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 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. That ride must be emotional. 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? We want to understand what drives them — sadism, rage, twisted fantasies? 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. In the novel, I could shape the geography to thwart the investigation as much or little as I pleased. Inevitably. Technology — how we can use it to both track and evade notice — plays a huge role in this book. No, I didn’t research niche online dating sites by signing up for Mime-Mates.com. Then he disappeared. ¤
Jeff Abbott is the New York Times best-selling author of Panic, Adrenaline, and many other novels. 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. That greatly complicated the investigation. How did you avoid some of the overused tropes of this kind of story? Done. How did you approach the action sequences to make the story so visually compelling? 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. I’ve tried that, and end up floundering. To create a visceral impact like the one we get from watching movies, I concentrate on motion, color, light, and action and reaction. Not mine. But city limits, county lines, and Welcome to Arkansas remain a prime reason that some serial killers choose interstate highways as their hunting grounds. Did it give you thoughts on how jurisdictions should work better together in real-life cases? We want to believe that if we can decipher their minds and motives, we would be the target who survives an attack. He sowed terror. 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. Mack Hendrix saw too much, cared too much, and took the case home with him. Her relentless pursuit pulls readers along for the ride. If anybody says I did, they’re a liar. How did you research these topics? And of course, I throw obstacles in the path of the characters. She also loves the thrill of the hunt. In UNSUB, I created the killer’s secret world. Action must reveal character, tighten tension, move the story forward, and raise or resolve vital questions. He taunted the public, wrote still-unsolved cryptograms, and threatened to shoot kids on school buses. Done. Chainsaw? I paint a visual canvas for readers, so they can picture the narrative playing field. On sites like these, amateurs dip their toes into investigative waters. Give us an unanswered, salacious, or creepy question, and we get FindTheProphet.com, the website Deralynn Hobbs runs in the novel. There’s a world of stories for her to tackle. 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? Caitlin takes on a cunning killer who not only terrorized her childhood but also shifted the very course of her life. It’s the start of a series featuring investigator Caitlin Hendrix. 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. Oh, come on. I was haunted by that. 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. Give us an unanswered question, and we hunger for the solution. He was a nightmare: a killer who wore an executioner’s hood, attacked young couples, then bragged about it to the police and media. Above all, I remember: What counts most is a scene’s emotional impact. The Zodiac killed in Benicia, Vallejo, Napa, and San Francisco. Serial killers fascinate us. MEG GARDINER: The premise found me. JUNE 26, 2017
MEG GARDINER is an American whose suspense novels were first published in the United Kingdom. Picture bot armies swarming the Twitter feeds of people who mention a killer, to threaten them in shocking terms. I wanted to create a killer whose goal is powerful, but veiled. But that’s not what you want to know. 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? He’s never been identified. We owe these investigators our gratitude for facing the worst of humanity on our behalf. No. Both! It’s only a matter of time. Thrillers can give readers a roller-coaster ride. I never jump in. Decades after a real case is closed, the cops who worked it may still visit victims’ graves. These days, law enforcement agencies often form task forces to combine their investigative power. If you can imagine it, so can a psychopath. The effects of violence ripple and never entirely die out. It’s a very cinematic book, and I mean that in a good way. I brainstorm and outline before I ever write one word of fiction. A theme throughout UNSUB is Caitlin’s damaged relationship with her father, who hunted “The Prophet” during his first ritualized killings. When we read, the action hits the mind, not the eye. ¤
JEFF ABBOTT: UNSUB asks the dramatic question: “What if a killer like the Zodiac returned?” How did you come up with this premise? Or a killer anonymously uploading a video of a murder to YouTube. These days, instead of reading pulp magazines like True Detective, we listen to Serial and post on the discussion boards on Zodiackiller.com. I grew up in California, where the Zodiac wasn’t a theoretical threat. UNSUB has sold to CBS as a TV series. Caitlin can only stop him by uncovering that goal. Do you think we’ll see that happen in real-life cases eventually? 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? 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. 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. It broke him emotionally and tore his family apart.