The Zodiac Killer, who terrified the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has inspired numerous television shows, movies, and even songs. He is also the inspiration for Meg Gardiner’s latest novel, Unsub, which incorporates thriller conventions, true-crime elements, and literary allusions to produce a suspenseful page-turner. This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on June 25, 2017.
MG: It’s a psychological thriller about a young cop, Caitlin Hendrix, who hunts an infamous serial killer, known as “the Prophet.” The Prophet was active in the 1990s, apparently inspired by the Zodiac Killer, and has returned recently. Hendrix gets drawn into this, and it’s difficult for her because her father was the lead detective on the original case. He couldn’t solve it, and it destroyed him emotionally and tore his family apart. He discourages Caitlin from getting drawn into it, but she cannot resist. It’s a riveting psychological thriller, and I want people to come away feeling chilled and exhilarated and learn something about the way these cases drill their way into the minds and hearts of, not just the cops and victims, but the entire public. I’m from California. I grew up there, and I remember this terrifying case that never quite went away.
Q: As you mention, the book is in some ways inspired by the Zodiac, who captured the public’s attention for the past five decades. Why do you think he has proved so durably fascinating?
A: The Zodiac is the ultimate “unsub,” or unknown subject,” which is where the title of the book comes from. He contacted newspapers, the police, radio shows; he put himself out there as an almost terrifying celebrity. I first learned about him as a child by seeing a rendering in the newspaper of a man with a gun wearing what looked like a black executioner’s hood with the zodiac symbol drawn on the front. For me and others, it became a mystery that turned into a myth.
Q: I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but is it fair to say that the book was also inspired by other works of literature?
A: The story dives into the religious and literary, the way that poetry, puzzles, and psychology all resonate, even across centuries and millennia. I don’t want to give away too much, but the killer’s driven to carry out a distorted view of justice. Why does the great literature or poetry alluded to in the book continue to resonate? Because great literature always does. It understands the human heart, our deepest fears, longings, hatreds, and loves.
Q: Were you tempted to call the book “The Prophet”?
A: Ahh, coming up with a title. You haven’t seen the walls of my office! I wanted the book to remain mysterious and not sound overtly religious. This book is about the unsub and also the cop who is hunting the unsub.
Q: You mention religion, and religious themes—or, if you prefer, themes of good and evil—occur throughout the novel. Do you incorporate symbols to reinforce the novel’s themes as you go along, or do you add them later?
MG: One of my former writing teachers, Ron Hansen, says, “writing a novel is a ramshackle process.” You can’t do it all at once. But an outline can guide the author, and once you start down a road, new ideas come to help you enrich it. When you are writing a psychological thriller, you want the novel to work on many levels, and I think imagery and symbols can add to the overall effect.
Q: The symbol for Mercury appears on the cover of the novel. Tell us about Mercury.
A: It’s thousands of years old, and I think it looks pretty scary. But it is rich with mythological and astrological meanings. Caitlyn tries to learn the meaning of this symbol. Does it signify the devil? Does it suggest the Prophet is the messenger of the gods? Or is it something else entirely?
Q: After writing a novel every year or so, it’s been three years since your last novel. What explains the gap?
A: I lived in England for many years, and my husband’s job was transferred to the United States. We moved to Austin, which was a big change in my life, and I was also ready to make a change in what I was writing. So I took the time to develop this new series about a cop hunting a killer of the sort who had haunted my dreams since I was a child.
Q: You say “series.” Is there more to come from Caitlin Hendrix?
A: Yes, I am working on the sequel to Unsub. I love series, and I love standalones. You bring something different to each, but writing about a cop who is hunting these killers lends itself to a series.
Q: Unsub is set in California, where you grew up. You now live in Austin. Any plans for a Texas setting in one of your novels?
A: You bet. In fact, I am working on the Unsub sequel now, and I just edited a scene where the protagonist can look out the window and see the UT Tower.
Q: With the enduring mystery surrounding the Zodiac and a series of novels in the works, it sounds like it could make for a good television drama.
A: Yes, Unsub was bought by CBS TV for development as a television series. I’m a novelist, but it’s a cherry on a sundae if the novel finds its way onto television. Either way, I’m very excited about this novel and the prospects for more to come.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.