As a young girl, Edgar-winning mystery writer Meg Gardiner lay awake nights wondering if the headline-seizing San Francisco killer known as the Zodiac might one day drift south to her Santa Barbara neighborhood. Years later, her childhood fears became reality when two neighborhood couples were murdered by another notorious serial killer, the Night Stalker.
“By the time they announced this, it was just a deep, sick feeling that you couldn’t believe you’d been so close to something this dark and massive,” Gardiner says.
“The killings were 18 months apart, so they weren’t immediately connected like he went from one house to the next, but it just echoes and reverberates. Then you start thinking, did this guy literally walk by the bedroom where my sister was sleeping? Did he walk up the creek where I used to play and catch tadpoles before he climbed the bank and broke the back window of these peoples’ houses? It does knock down your sense of security.”
What’s a bestselling author to do with such a gut punch from the past? In Gardiner’s case, she harnessed her personal horror into UNSUB (FBI shorthand for “unknown subject”), a gripping, Zodiac-inspired thrill ride guaranteed to turn nighttime readers into daytime readers. It’s so visceral, CBS has already bought the rights to adapt it into a TV series.
Set in the Bay Area where Gardiner spent seven years earning her undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University, UNSUB centers on newbie detective Caitlin Hendrix, herself a victim of a similar childhood trauma. Caitlin’s father, Detective Mack Hendrix, spent years as the lead investigator in pursuit of a brazen, cryptic serial killer known as the Prophet, wrecking himself and his family in the process. As the book opens, the Prophet’s trademark symbol is found carved into a new set of victims 20 years later.
For Caitlin, the suddenly red-hot cold case poses an irresistible opportunity to vindicate her father, but at what price? Mack’s entreaties to steer clear are no match for Caitlin’s resolve to capture the killer who stole her childhood.
Gardiner welcomed the opportunity to dive into a new world with a female detective at the helm, a nice fit alongside her other two successful series featuring feisty freelance journalist Evan Delaney (China Lake) and forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett (The Dirty Secrets Club). In addition to researching unsolved murder cases and speaking with psychiatrists and investigators, Gardiner had to take a journey back in time to put herself in Caitlin’s shoes.
“It is fiction, but I’m drawing from the idea of how a case would have been handled 20 years ago versus how it would be handled today, with greater coordination and crisis response,” Gardiner says. “You can find all the original files for so many of these real-life UNSUB cold cases and read through them and see how the investigations ran and the frustrations and the dedication of the law enforcement officers. It affected them terribly. I know that some retired cops every year still go to the cemetery on the anniversary of one of the Zodiac attacks and leave flowers on the victims’ graves.”
Bringing Caitlin’s broken, bitter father to life as a central character proved something of a balancing act.
“He is the person who has taken on all of the pain, and that aspect comes out in his character throughout the story. But it’s also got to be a story of him as a father. That’s as much a part of everything as the killer in the story,” she says.
"The Zodiac was the first modern serial killer who really lusted for publicity and wanted to invoke terror and bring it all back to feed his own ego, really."
Conversations with actual law enforcement officers proved crucial to presenting a realistic picture of a family driven to the brink by a psychotic killer.
“It just trickles down to every level. For cops, being able to draw the line between work and home so they can turn off, that becomes difficult,” Gardiner explains. “I’ve spoken to cops who needed to switch from night shift to day shift because the cases they were getting were bleeding over to the breakfast table with their first graders. How do you take care of yourself when you’re responsible for taking care of the community?”
While it would have been accurate to cast a fellow cop as Caitlin’s love interest, Gardiner added a humorous twist in creating Sean Rawlins, an FBI-trained federal explosives expert who shares custody of a young daughter with his ex.
“It is true that female police officers often do end up in relationships with male officers or another policewoman because it’s so unusual for them to be in this world that they find it easier to deal with someone who understands the job and why they are doing it,” Gardiner says. “And their relationship is fun as well; he’s a bomb explosives specialist, not a botanist.”
While it’s often Sean who helps Caitlin unwind, Gardiner has beaucoup experience conjuring fully formed, flawed and funny female protagonists.
“I’m glad you think she’s fun!” the author cheers when I ask about Caitlin’s humorous side. “She takes her work seriously but she doesn’t take herself that seriously. I write thrillers that are supposed to make you gasp and hold your breath and bite your nails out of concern for the characters, but the thing I would never, ever want to write is something that anyone would describe as bleak. If a character can’t laugh at themselves, then I want them to leave.”
It wouldn’t be a Gardiner book without at least one child in the mix. The author and her husband raised three, and she considers it a must to invoke the joys of family life when writing thrillers.
“People do enjoy families, and you want to have a sense that it’s just a little beyond the tunnel focus of whatever is going on out on the crime scene,” she explains. “You want there to be a larger life that people find rewarding and want to preserve and nurture. I like writing about kids, too. My [grown] daughter doesn’t play with My Little Pony anymore, so I have to find some way to slip that in!”
She grants no such levity to the Prophet however. His sick mind-games to baffle law enforcement prove as disturbing in UNSUB as it was in real life for those who remember the Zodiac.
“That’s part of the intrigue of both reading and writing a novel, to give readers what they want but not in the way they expect it,” Gardiner explains. “The Zodiac was the first modern serial killer who really lusted for publicity and wanted to invoke terror and bring it all back to feed his own ego, really. That still horrifies and fascinates me, that somebody would try to gain self-importance in that way, and I tried to give the Prophet something mysteriously similar to that.
“Certainly, with the Zodiac, who wanted people to think perhaps that he was smarter and deeper than he actually is or was, the cops were all over every possible connection, because there were all these cyphers, cryptograms and references to the afterlife; all these symbols. The Zodiac symbol itself, what does it mean? Did it have to do with astrology? Astronomy? Devil worship? Everybody was starting to pull at every possible thread. In a mystery novel, you want people to wonder what’s going on, and you want to offer ambiguous signposts that let them try to figure it out for themselves.”
Odds are we’ll once again be day reading and signpost heeding in January when Gardiner’s Ted Bundy-based second UNSUB thriller, Into the Black Nowhere, hits bookstores.
Author photo credit Stuart Boreham.