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Exploring Dark Corners

By April Snellings

One of the great joys of working for The Big Thrill is having a ringside seat as a favorite author launches and subsequently grows a new thriller series—and getting to pick her brain along the way.

Such has been the case with Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB series, which debuted in the summer of 2017 with a first installment of the same title. That novel won a much-deserved Barry Award for Best Thriller and introduced readers to Caitlin Hendrix, a green but talented young investigator who is poached from a California police department to the FBI’s storied Behavioral Analysis Unit.

Caitlin, whose own family was shattered by an encounter with a Zodiac-like killer known as the Prophet, soon finds herself on the trail of some of the country’s deadliest predators. In 2018’s Into the Black Nowhere, she traveled to Texas to hunt a charming, sadistic killer inspired by Ted Bundy. This year’s installment, THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT (out now from Blackstone Publishing), finds Caitlin back in her native California, tracking a killer who invades idyllic suburban homes in the dead of night, murders both parents, and leaves the children alive to bear witness to the horror he’s wrought. Each entry combines Gardiner’s chillingly evocative prose with richly developed characters, plot twists that slice like boning knives, and almost mythic confrontations between good and evil.

Unsurprisingly, the series has found the audience it deserves, and Gardiner’s profile continues to grow. CBS promptly scooped up television rights to UNSUB in 2017, and two years later Gardiner was part of one of the most talked-about deals in the publishing industry when Blackstone lured her, along with Reed Farrel Coleman and Steve Hamilton, away from their Big Five publisher with promises of guaranteed publicity, increased creative control, and career-best paydays.

Now that the third UNSUB novel has found its way into the world, The Big Thrill sat down with Gardiner once again to track her progress as she crafts one of the genre’s most promising new series—and one of the most exciting young heroines in the post-Clarice Starling literary landscape.

Meg Gardiner

Now that you’re three books in, can you talk about how Caitlin Hendrix is evolving for you?

I love Caitlin. I love finding out who she is and who she’s becoming. She started as a newbie detective in UNSUB, the first novel in the series, and was recruited to the FBI, where she is now becoming a more accomplished investigator. She’s still passionate, she still gets a rush from hunting the bad guys, and she still knows that she has to watch so that she doesn’t get obsessed with each case and dive too deep into it, to her own regret. She’s trying to figure out how to fine-tune the edge—that’s something that her boss tells her in the book. He’s always been telling her to go deeper into a case, to open herself up and try to understand the behavior of the unknown killer they’re hunting, but he sees that she’s becoming extremely sensitive to the emotional impact on all the victims in this case and warns her against letting herself get so close to the edge that it cuts her and makes her bleed emotionally as well.

With a series character like Caitlin, how do you strike that balance between making sure readers get what they show up for, but also letting her change and grow as the series progresses?

That’s a great question, and it’s a tricky balance. Readers do want to come back to a series to meet the characters they’ve gotten to know, like we want to go back and meet up with friends to see that they’re at heart the same person. But in a book you can’t let a character just completely stagnate, because then they become a stick figure and the stories go stale. So I give all my series characters a past and a future. You have to think about where they’ve come from, whether that’s their upbringing, their successes and failures, their approach to life, their baggage, their regrets, whatever they haul along with them, that helps make them who they are. But you also have to look ahead and see who they can expand into becoming so that there is someplace for them to go while holding on to their core identity. You have to have a future also in the sense that you want there to be more stories, so I find that in every book at the end I never tie every single thread up in a tight little bow. There’s always some loose thread, whether that’s a plot string or something personal to the character, something they realize they still want or need so that it will drive them forward into the next novel.

Gardiner, President of Mystery Writers of America, at the 2019 Edgar Awards with 2018 MWA President Jeffery Deaver.

That tees up my next question: Caitlin pursues a different serial predator in each entry, but a killer known as the Ghost is always there, infecting her life, just out of reach. Why is it important to have that overarching storyline hovering in the background?

I like to have a continual thread. Suspense is what I write, and the whole concept behind the word suspense is that you’re suspending something—you’re hanging something up, letting it dangle, and I’m keeping the readers dangling as well when I write a series that has a background thread that’s running through it and never quite getting tied up. It’s a livewire as well. It’s not something inert—it’s electric and dangerous, and it’s always there kind of thrumming in the background that Caitlin needs to figure out how to deal with. That’s a lot of fun for me as a writer, and I hope it keeps readers on the edge of their seats.

Did this particular installment present any unique challenges that you hadn’t encountered yet in this series?

The challenge in a series novel is always to keep it fresh—to hold on to the shape of a story about an investigation that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, without just completely repeating yourself. The antagonist has to be unique, present new challenges, be increasingly devious or intelligent or cunning in a new way. You have to set it in a fresh setting—not necessarily in a different city, though that’s what happens a lot in the UNSUB series, because Caitlin’s unit deals with cases across the country—but fresh psychological territory as well. So what psychological challenges does the antagonist present to the heroine? How’s she going to figure out what’s going on and deal with somebody who feels both physically and emotionally threatening?

Gardiner at BookExpo America in New York City in April 2019, standing beside a massive banner for THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT.

UNSUB drew heavily on the Zodiac Killer case, and the killer in Into the Black Nowhere was inspired by Ted Bundy. Does THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT have roots in a real case?

It has a kernel of fact at the bottom, which is the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez. I lived in Southern California at the time he was at large and wreaking fear on LA. I just remember this creeping sense of dread that everybody felt. You know, we were in Southern California—sunny, bright, everything was supposed to be shiny and great, but this guy owned the night. We all had to sleep sometime, and how did you keep him out?

These books really make me think about the role of serial killers and mass murderers in the American cultural landscape. Particularly notorious cases, such as the Night Stalker attacks and the Manson Family murders, have almost taken on an air of folklore, as evidenced by movies and shows like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and the last season of American Horror Story. Are you consciously exploring that dynamic in the UNSUB books?

It has become that way, the more I’ve done the research for the novels and reflected on my own life growing up in California, where so many of these infamous, dangerous cases have taken place. I’ve realized that these serial killers do become kind of mythic in a sense, because they are a modern psychological manifestation of the archetypal monster. So I’m curious about where they come from, why they persist today, why people are so fascinated with them. And everybody is—I’ve asked psychiatrists why people are fascinated with serial killers, and they say, well, we’re as fascinated as anyone else. Who does this? Why do they do this? Can they be stopped? I think for all of us, there’s a curiosity, the sense of the forbidden look into the dark side, and part of us wants to hope that if we can understand these killers we could protect ourselves from them.

At this point in your career, do you find that you do less research, or is that an ongoing process?

Research is never-ending. I enjoy it. I have to stop myself at some point, because you can’t just dig and dig and dig. But that’s part of the process of discovery. If I read an article or hear an expert talk about some new investigative technique like genetic genealogy, or hear about some killer that’s finally been exposed and arrested, like the Golden State Killer—that’s a whole other story, by the way. As a sidebar, he killed a number of people within walking distance of my parents’ house, and nobody knew that for decades. They just knew that two couples had been killed and another had been assaulted, and it took 25 years before DNA results came and connected those killings to this whole statewide abomination. So that really just rocked everybody—me, my family—to realize how our perfectly safe suburban neighborhood was just a hunting ground for this killer. It was horrible. So you see where I get my interest in UNSUB cases.

Gardiner signs advance copies of THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT at New York City’s BookExpo America in May 2019.

Did you learn that before writing DARK CORNERS? Because that’s a theme in the book—that these supposedly safe neighborhoods really aren’t.

That was probably bubbling underneath everything. I had just been reading the local paper from afar, and saw an article saying that these killings had been tied to what at the time they were calling the Original Night Stalker—this was before Michelle McNamara wrote her book [I’ll Be Gone in the Dark] and renamed him the Golden State Killer. But I went to a map and started looking at how close it was, and then I was absolutely stunned—my brother bought a brand-new house in a neighborhood that had just been built, and I was standing in the kitchen admiring his digs, and I looked out and realized that one of the murder sites was literally across the street. It took me a long time to decide whether or not I should tell him that, because he’s got little kids.

Did you tell him?

I did. And now we’ve become mutually obsessed with the whole thing. [Laughs]

I get it. It’s horrifying, but you can’t look away. To me, that’s one of the most disturbing cases in recent memory.

Yes, and especially when they arrested the suspect and you realized why some of his early victims had reported that they heard a police radio outside the house while they were being attacked—because he was a cop. So, yes, the whole idea of what is safe, what is not, who’s out there in the dark, probably had drilled itself deep beneath my skin. But in a novel we can safely explore all that and have the heroine close the case sooner than it would be in real life.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on tone. It’s interesting to me that you’re able to write these disturbing stories that could easily be so bleak and grim that they’re not any fun to read, but that’s not the case. They’re very entertaining.

Good! I’m glad you said that. The last thing I ever want any of my books to be is bleak. They’re supposed to be gripping stories that carry readers along, biting their nails as they flip the pages. I want them to be about the investigators—the people who dedicate themselves to putting away as many of these criminals as possible. So I really want the focus to be on the hunters—the people who are taking on this burden on all of our behalves, to apprehend unsubs and bring them to justice and try to make the streets or the night at least briefly safer. They’re supposed to be big thriller stories; they’re supposed to be entertaining.

Can you talk about the upcoming adaptation at all? CBS acquired the rights back in 2017…

Actually, there’s new news! UNSUB is moving to Amazon Studios. So I am absolutely thrilled that Amazon has particularly bought THE DARK CORNERS OF THE NIGHT for adaptation as an hour-long drama, and they’re going to be taking over UNSUB. The executive producer and showrunner is Lawrence Trilling, who currently does Goliath with Billy Bob Thornton. I’ll be a producer, inserting myself wherever, whenever, and however they need me.

Congratulations! And speaking of big news, your move to Blackstone was the talk of the publishing world last spring. Can you offer an insider’s view on how that huge deal went down?

Sure! I moved to Blackstone Publishing along with Reed Farrel Coleman and Steve Hamilton. Blackstone has been a hugely established presence in audio publishing for decades, and they made a big move into print several years ago, with a big plan for their future and the future of any authors that were with them. They made the move extremely attractive to me. They guaranteed marketing as part of the deal, which, you know, if you want people to read your book, they have to be able to discover them. They have to hear about them. So having a publisher say they were going to guarantee putting effort behind getting the word out broadly about my books was one of the attractive things. And they have been absolutely great, wonderful people to work with so far.

Do you think the deal is representative of a paradigm shift that might be happening in publishing?

I have no idea. I knew the Story Factory was a place that I wanted to go, because I knew they were offering a paradigm shift at a time in my career that I wanted to diversify the kind of work I was doing, and I was delighted to work with Shane Salerno, who’s my agent and who is also an extremely accomplished writer himself. Getting notes from an agent who’s also an expert screenwriter—that gets you to up your game immediately. So I have been knocked out by his dedication, support, and creative vision—everything has made me very happy, let’s put it that way.

Finally, can you say anything at all about the next UNSUB novel?

Caitlin is after yet another killer. [Laughs] Homicide is her bread and butter. This one will take her to some new places where she hasn’t investigated before, including New York City.


April Snellings
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