January 31, 2019
by Meg Gardiner
New York, New York
Caitlin Hendrix has it all. A loving boyfriend, a recent promotion to narcotics detective, daddy issues.
The unsub (Unknown Subject) known as The Prophet, originally terrorized the San Francisco area in the 1990s. Responsible for eleven murders over five years, the serial killer taunted authorities Zodiac style, sending letters signed with his self-proclaimed moniker, the ancient symbol for Mercury. Mack Hendrix, a former San Francisco Police Detective and Caitlain’s father, spent years chasing him. The toll it took left him angry, divorced, and alienated from his daughter. It’s twenty years later and The Prophet has returned to fulfill some unknown destiny. Caitlan, now a detective at the heart of the investigation, is faced with whether The Prophet will destroy her the same way he destroyed her father.
UNSUB is lawyer turned writer, Meg Gardiner’s thirteenth novel. Rave reviews have long followed Gardiner. She’s an Edgar-winning novelist, UNSUB was nominated for a Barry Award, and Stephen King called her Evan Delaney series, “the finest crime-suspense series I’ve come across in the last twenty years.”1 In 2017, CBS bought the rights to UNSUB and brought on Liz Friedman (Orange is the New Black, Jessica Jones, House, and Elementary) to write the pilot script and serve as showrunner. In light of all these accolades, it appears I’m in the minority because while UNSUB makes a fine beach book or a book to read on a noisy bus, it wasn’t the page turning, awe inspiring, groundbreaking novel that the reviews on the jacket cover led me to believe it would be.
Some issues may be solitary bits of distractions that bother me more than they should, such as:
- Her use of awkward sayings that act like cliches – Regarding amateur sleuths: “They’ve been on us like bees pouring out of a hive” (p. 63) and about the substitute taking over class for the murdered trig teacher: he was “looking like a rabbit in headlights” (p. 69).
- The subtle elements that are a little too reminiscent of other works: 1) Michele swears like Debra Morgan in Dexter who made swearing into an art form and whose unique uses of the word fuck was admirable 2) A serial killer fixated on the literary works of Dante’s “Inferno” sounds eerily like Joe Carroll and his obsession with Edgar Allen Poe in The Following 3) What about Detective Thomas Martinez with his bowling shirt and trilby hat, who had the nature of a beach bartender? Can you say Detective Angel Batista?
- Her over use of adverbs, such as “Caitlan looked morosely at the phone.” (p. 107) What exactly did the phone do to her? Furthermore, it seems that when Stephen King praised her work he apparently forgot his own advice when he said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”2
- Her continued descriptions of the weather left me weary and convinced that Elmore Leonard is crying somewhere – “The sky hung, painted indigo.” (p. 122)
- Those times when a literary style peaks through but seems misplaced, leaving me scrambling for a dictionary – “The barista glanced up from beneath his man bun with faux languor.” (p. 239)
- When she works too hard to make us believe that most of the Bay Area police officers are so unnerved by the wrath The Prophet leaves behind, that they are unduly queasy at crime scenes. Sure.
A more important issue though, is as much as she tries, I found Gardiner’s characters flat and uninspiring. They are either too perfect or too damaged. I lacked empathy for them and was less than interested in their journey.
Clearly a true crime fan, Gardiner’s newest novel, Into the Black Nowhere, is inspired by serial killer Ted Bundy and is the second novel in the Caitlin Hendrix series. If CBS does move forward with UNSUB as a series, I’ll be anxious to see how they approach character development and plot reconstruction.3 It’s a genre the network is familiar with. Who knows, maybe we’ll see Caitlin Hendrix cross over onto “Criminal Minds”? Now that, I would tune in to watch.
1 “Bestselling Thriller Writer Meg Gardiner Presents Program at Burnet Library,” Picayune News. January 7, 2019. https://www.101highlandlakes.com/news/meg-gardiner-herman-brown-free-library
Stephen King listed her novels Crosscut and The Dirty Secrets Club in “…the best things I’ve read between 2001 and 2009” section of his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY, 2010 edition, p. 290.
2 King, p. 125.
3 According to the The Hollywood Reporter, supposed showrunner Liz Friedman signed a development deal with Sony Pictures Television. In the same deal she became an Executive Producer for “The Good Doctor.” Goldberg, Lesley. “Liz Friedman Inks Overall Deal With Sony TV.” Hollywood Reporter, June 18, 2018.