A Conspiracy of Tall Men


By Noah Hawley

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The debut literary thriller that launched the career of the bestselling author of Before the Fall and the creator of the show Fargo.

Linus Owen is a young professor of conspiracy theory at a small college just outside San Francisco. His marriage is foundering and his wife, Claudia, has gone to Chicago to visit her mother. But if Claudia is in Chicago, how is it that two FBI agents show up at Linus’ office and inform him that Claudia has been killed in a plane crash on her way from New York to Brazil? And why did a man named Jeffrey Holden, the vice president of a major pharmaceutical company, buy her ticket and die beside her?

Enlisting the aid of two fellow conspiracy theorists, Linus heads across the country in search of answers. But as their journey progresses, it becomes frighteningly clear they’ve left the realm of the academic and are tangled up in a dangerous, multilayered cover-up. Finally, deep in the heart of the American desert, stunned by an ominous revelation, Linus sees he has a new mission: to try to stay alive.

Part Don DeLillo, part Kurt Vonnegut, with writing that is electric, whip-smart and suspenseful at each turn, Noah Hawley draws us into a deliciously labyrinthine world of paranoia and plots. “Energetic and funny…an engrossing debut.” — The New York Times


Foreword by Noah Hawley

It started with a question. Or, rather, it started with a series of moments that built up to a question. An independent study at Sarah Lawrence about the history of paranoia in American politics; news footage of a siege at Ruby Ridge and then a second in Waco, Texas. Or maybe it started with The X-Files. It was the mid-nineties after all. Somewhere in the mixture of all these elements, the question was born: What are we so afraid of? And by we I meant Americans. The history of this country is a history of fear—fear of government, fear of a loss of individuality, fear of each other.

The fear waxes and wanes, but it never fully disappears. We were born with it, it seems, and it follow us from generation to generation.

For those of you who don’t remember, the nineties was a decade rich with conspiracy theories about a New World Order and black helicopters hovering in secret, of a government hell-bent on seizing our guns, of enslaving us at the direction of a secret global elite. Just as the seventies was a time of intense paranoia, in which a White House conspiracy had been proven to go all the way to the top, so was the nineties a time of rampant distrust and rumor. And so, in 1993, a question was asked by a young man in a cramped studio apartment in New York City, a question that became an idea about a professor of conspiracy theories whose wife is killed in a plane crash. An idea soon packed with my clothes and moved to San Francisco, where pages were written on weekends and long bus rides to work.

Behold the young novelist struggling to arrive.

The question was a broad one, but I quickly realized that the ideas that drove the novel had to be specific. In the end, you see, a question is not enough to fuel a novel. It needs characters. The questions that drive the book have to become their questions, the ethereal nature of themes grounded in human identity. And so the question what are we so afraid of becomes instead what is he so afraid of, Linus Owen, our hero. A man who teaches classes about paranoia, but has managed to remain one step removed, until an actual conspiracy consumes his life. Why is it easier for him to assign blame for the world’s (and his own) problems to the actions of unknown global powers? Than to admit that people have flaws, that we’re our own worst enemies, that the father who died from a two-pack-a-day habit wasn’t a victim of Philip Morris, but, in fact, a suicide? A weak man who smoked each cigarette knowing full well that it would kill him.

The nineties passed. X-Files culture shifted. American paranoia waned, but only for a moment. For here we are, twenty years later, and the pendulum has swung again—the names have changed; the New World Order has become Pizzagate, militias have become sovereign citizens. But the fear remains. It is our fear, the burden we carry. We thought the Internet would save us, shining a light into the dark corners of uninformed paranoia, but it has only made the fear stronger. Rumors fly now in real time, igniting the embers of uncertainty.

And meanwhile the question remains.


City of Machines


Linus is afraid of money. Not the smaller bills, the Washingtons and Lincolns, the Jacksons and Grants, but the larger sums, the cashier’s checks with multiple zeros, the stock portfolios and escrow accounts, afraid too of what they buy, the new cars with their leather stink, the first-class seats on airplanes, the cellular phones and fax modems. He is afraid of office towers, where currency is acquired, afraid of suburban mansions and large screen TVs. He is alarmed by purebred dogs. Expensive suits make his teeth chatter, shoes that shine, organic fruits and vegetables purchased at gleaming, politically correct supermarkets, monogrammed handkerchiefs, pipes and cigars, flat platinum credit cards, symphony tickets, bread machines and espresso makers, ski weekends and barbecues with salmon and free-range chicken, bed-and-breakfasts, four-wheel-drive vehicles owned by anyone not living on the side of a mountain, laser disc players, multiple CD changers, summer houses and winter houses, spontaneous weekend getaways, the games of tennis and golf, penny loafers, angora sweaters, dry martinis and ten-year-old scotch, bay windows that don’t look out over parking lots or weed-cluttered yards, but over real bays, Jacuzzi bathtubs, all of Western Europe (especially France and Switzerland), electronic organizers with global position satellite locators, season tickets to anything, waterproof watches, corporate vice-presidents, crystal, gold. He is suspicious of comfort, not to mention luxury. He fears the implications of wealth, though he has never really had any. “I’m too cynical to be rich,” he says. He equates financial success with a certain soullessness.

This has been his philosophy since the early days of his youth. It is a byproduct of his own juvenile poverty politicized, and yet somehow he has found a certain comfort now in his middle age, sipping home-brewed coffee in the living room of his own home, looking out a bay window at a small section of San Francisco Bay. He is well aware of the contradictions, the small discrepancies between politics and life, between phobia and happiness. Does he wake up afraid, lying under sheets that are one hundred percent cotton or occasionally real linen? Can he be terrified of the sound of his own wife steaming milk under the gleaming silver nozzle of their espresso machine? No. As with all people he has altered his perceptions to retain both his dogma and his lifestyle, but there are problems. His life is not all contented moments of calm reflection. There is a noxious cloud that follows him, a sense of foreboding. The truth is, he is a man pursued by sinister forces, plagued by suspicious happenings, troubled by disquieting phenomena.

Things are happening to Linus. He has grown one and a half inches since October. A fact verified by his last physical. For a thirty-five-year-old man this is startling, and it makes him question the viability of his wardrobe. He can often be seen tugging down his pants legs, a look of alarm on his face. If this keeps up, he thinks, I will soon have nothing at all to wear. Not that he is a man preoccupied by fashion. On the contrary. It is the inexplicable nature of the occurrence that bothers him, the absurdity. The truth is, Linus is afraid that his life will soon be overrun by the minor mysteries of his body and mind, that he will no longer be able to work because of such distractions.

At the same time, there is twenty-one dollars and sixty-three cents less than there should be in his checking account. This is similarly something that can’t be accounted for. Even by men with doctorates. Even by bank presidents. When he comes home at night particulars are not where he left them, books lying on tables open to different pages than they were that morning, coffee cups stacked on wholly new shelves. His wife has gone to visit her mother, so she cannot be blamed. She is in Chicago, fighting wind chills and the insistent demands of the elderly. Linus is understandably at a loss. It would seem that scientific reasoning no longer applies in his life, that the laws of nature and physics have been suspended as he moves onward into middle age.

He has been married six years this December, the time simply rushing past him as he waits on street corners and supermarket checkout lines. It is his plan to bring Claudia flowers on their anniversary, to go for a drive to a seaside bed-and-breakfast. This is something he plots in secret, smiling and nodding when she suggests her own itinerary. It is only fair, he thinks, that I have secrets. There is so much kept from me, tiny plots and greater schemes. Everyone has his or her own agenda. This much is clear. He wonders if he will ever know why his body has chosen to grow, why his hair has decided to thin. Not in one spot, but all over; a general wearing away, an erosion of brown, like water driving at a jut of rock. He has resigned himself to ignorance.

There is no alternative, he feels, but to blame all these things on some greater conspiracy, which he does. Linus, you see, believes there is a clandestine cabal running the world. A machination comprised of bankers and businessmen, military leaders and intelligence agencies. He believes in UFOs, in the secret agenda of the Freemasons, the monopolies of industry. At least this is what he tells his students, who scribble down all of his paranoid imaginings as if they were science or math, as if the very act of teaching them made them irrefutably true. Linus is a professor of conspiracy theory at Modesto College in San Rafael, California. He teaches, among other things, a graduate-level class on JFK, gives seminars on magic bullet theories and the hidden etymological meaning of the words “Dealey Plaza,” shows slides meant to prove the faking of the 1967 Apollo moon landing, explains how the symbols on the dollar bill reveal the presence of a secret government leading the world toward unified socialism and biblical Armageddon.

On this particular day he is making his way from the main history building of the college to his office, which is sequestered underneath the cafeteria in a building known as “the Landfill” because of the creeping smells that emanate from its windows and doors around mealtime. As he walks he is holding his head back, pressing one hand to his face, clutching a wad of wet Kleenex. This is his third nosebleed this week. The joke is that he has been given an implant by extraterrestrials. His students have tried to convince him to comb his body for unexplained scars and triangular marks. It is only by the strongest power of will that he has not done so so far.

Above him the sky is cloudy, a gray glove, fingers drumming restlessly. Walking with his head elevated like a man applying eye drops, he stumbles his way down the stairs into the narrow hallway that leads to his office, a small square of yellowed wall photos and overburdened bookshelves.

He manages to dig out his keys, to wrestle the rusty lock and shove the door open. He drops his briefcase, throws himself into his scarred wooden desk chair, which bends back alarmingly on well-stretched springs. He has not bothered to turn on the light. His eyes are tearing. He tastes blood, salty, filled with heavy metals and his own spiraling DNA. The clock on his desk says 11:45, insistently, in red digital numbers, as if the only thing an occupant of the room must be aware of is the time. Linus, it should be noted, is not a big fan of time. There is too much of it, he thinks, and to no good end. However, it would behoove Linus to pay some attention to his clock, for by this point his wife is already dead.

*  *  *

He has lunch with Edward and Roy at a vegetarian bistro just off Route 101 in Mill Valley, parking his car in the lot and crossing the ruptured asphalt to the front door, noting that Roy’s ’84 Monte Carlo is already parked outside. Inside the greetings are brief and businesslike. Edward and Roy live a few miles away. They’re neighbors who conspire each month in Roy’s basement to publish two separate government watchdog newsletters. As paranoid intellectuals go they’re a lot like Lucy and Ethel, mulishly determined to pursue every harebrained scheme. Edward is twenty-four, but already retired. He’s saved a startling sum of money working as a software engineer for several Silicon Valley start-up companies at the top of the decade. He lives off this now, investing and allotting. He’s still just a narrow youth, from some angles almost two-dimensional, with a slight crest of curly brown hair and a dress code comprised mainly of black jeans and combat boots.

Roy is more substantive physically. He has a masculine build, wears his dirty blond hair trimmed at the ear, harbors a crooked mouth and a square jaw. His hands are weathered. He gestures in expansive swings. Unlike Linus, who has the rest of the afternoon free except for a student conference at three o’clock, Roy has to be back to work in exactly an hour. A new, tyrannical boss at Radio Shack, he explains, “As if I were a scientist at a Lockheed missile facility instead of an overage computer geek selling second-rate electronic equipment to a steady trickle of the condescending middle class.”

Here among the tabouli salads and unprocessed soy drinks the three conspiracy theorists meet each week to discuss developments in the interconnected network of plots driving the world toward a new order. The words that emerge from their mouths are rooted in the language of suspicion, the discussions of secret technologies, of alien abductions, of governmental machinations traceable to the highest levels. They are representative of the uneasy outcasts, some with academic credentials, who fill the nooks and crannies of the American experience. They seek the truth the way soothsayers read entrails. In order to understand them you must first understand that there is no such thing as History with a capital H. Everything is a matter of perception and interpretation. Facts can be manipulated, photographs altered. As Linus has explained to his students: People do not come to believe things after seeing them. They see things only when they already believe them. Be alert. Watch the skies.

“There’s an online conference on corn circles and cattle mutilation tonight, Professor,” says Edward, who has taken out a small tube of antibacterial spray and begun wiping off his silverware. They sit in a booth by the window, vinyl seats the color of beef blood. “Sixty percent rise in mutilated cattle since February. This guy who’s running the conference has an impressive collection of downloadable photos. Can you read .gif files on that lumbering Goliath of yours?”

Edward is referring to Linus’s file-cabinet-size computer, which runs at the speed of an overweight, asthmatic civil servant.

“Print them out for me, will you?” says Linus. The nosebleed has stopped, but he is wandering around Northern California with a small clump of toilet paper jammed up one nostril. They order salads and shrimp cocktails. Edward and Roy won’t eat beef because of the growth hormones the government injects into cows. It’s a sore spot with Roy, who was a meat eater for twenty-nine years until Edward wore him down with slides and spreadsheets. Now he suffers through fish, chicken, and vegetables with a subterranean resentment that borders on the spoiled. Edward mentions that antibiotics used in livestock feed are creating strains of drug-resistant food-poisoning bacteria: “So now when you get salmonella poisoning from that Egg McMuffin, you’ll need to start thinking in terms of eulogies.” They offer to show him documentation that the hormone injections are part of a plot to control the human mind by introducing particular pharmaceuticals through diet.

“Write me up a paragraph, will you? Include sources.”

Edward and Roy, despite Roy’s innocuous job at Radio Shack and Edward’s mostly shut-in status, are cutting-edge anarchists, publishers of anarchic newsletters, organizers of the new virtual revolution. Linus, in contrast, feels sheltered in the fat nest of academia. Sometimes he doubts his phone is even bugged. He picks it up and listens for the comforting clicks and whirs of government surveillance. This is how people in his profession confirm their importance, by identifying the size of the file with their name on it in a gray-green file cabinet in Washington, D.C. Linus hasn’t published an article or done an interview in almost six months. He has been distracted by his own life. His friends have become his lifeline to the daily rumbles of secret groups, plots and subplots. Through a mixture of cleverness and cash they have set up one of the premier databases in the country for tracking clandestine government projects.

“Think of it this way,” says Roy. “Knowledge is power, therefore ignorance is slavery. Correspondingly, terrorism becomes the fear of the unknown. Innocent activities take on sinister characteristics. We stop trusting our mail. What could be a teddy bear could also be a bomb. We learn to fear crowds, for crowds are the target of desperate individuals. Terrorism strips us of our identities. Crowds strip us of our humanity. We are the smudgeable ink rushed into newsprint. We are yesterday’s papers, yellowing in trash heaps and collecting dust in the living rooms of yuppies.”

He takes a sip of his Orangina, which is the closest thing to a Coke he can get in this restaurant.

“The answer, if your intent is to make people feel empowered—though without actually empowering them—is to overload them with knowledge, with information. In this way they feel as if they are inside a loop of knowing. You show them the type of information they need to feel secure, whether or not it’s true, and in this way you have a population that is content. They believe that they possess answers to the questions they ask, and that they have access to the information they need. Now you are free to do whatever it is you like. Our job is to decipher the truth from the flood of data, to extrapolate meaning from an assault of news and facts meant to overwhelm us and keep us from ever finding out just what is going on. Witness the Internet. What is the information age if not a ploy to make us feel informed when every year we know less and less about the things that really matter?”

Linus chews the ice cubes from his glass.

“How’s the missus?” Edward wants to know. He smiles nervously. There are spaces between his teeth that should never have survived adolescence.

“She’s in Chicago visiting her mother.”

Edward blows his nose into his napkin. He has a sip of water to try to judge if it hurts his throat to swallow. “Talk about ice and snow,” he says. He’s on the verge of a cold or the flu. His joints hurt, his nose is running. Edward has taken the bold step of retiring at twenty-four in part because of his health. Roy calls him a hypochondriac, but then Roy doesn’t appreciate the full danger of the bacteriological world.

Linus folds and refolds his napkin, distracted by his own hands moving.

“Claudia also has some business. A client of her agency. Some meeting or other. A presentation maybe.” He shakes his head. Claudia is in advertising. She is the head of a creative team at a midsize agency. He carries pictures of her in his wallet. He feels she endows his money with a certain holiness. Linus himself is, at best, unremarkable looking, not unattractive, just bland and not given to the best grooming habits, while Claudia, aside from being compelling visually, is someone who says the cleverest things in all the appropriate places.

Recently she has been showing irritation that he has not yet blossomed into some greater academic, become the chairman of some committee or the national authority on a subject other than the ridiculous paranoid sophistry he is renowned for. He is beginning to think she wants a husband who is more cosmopolitan. A Rockefeller, a Kennedy, a bright, handsome young urban professional who drives a German-engineered sports car and knows how to choose wine. To this end he has purchased a book on vineyards. He is planning to learn a foreign language as soon as the semester is over. Study French, perhaps, or Russian. He vows to buy a tuxedo and take her to the opera. To throw out all of the corduroy pants and the jackets with off-colored elbow patches. But he wonders: How can you teach the underside of American history in a twelve-hundred-dollar suit? Though Claudia’s friends will take him more seriously once he begins to dress like an Italian stockbroker, his own friends will take him less. He could lose credibility in his field.

There are corners and then there are corners and this is a sticky one, but Claudia has become very obstinate recently. She wants to be happier than she is. Work problems, she tells him, though it is he who suffers the brunt of them, whatever they are. He plans to bring her flowers on their anniversary. To take her somewhere nice. Though it seems to him they have been growing apart, he is sure this is just his suspicious mind. That underneath his fear everything is fine. She still looks at him sometimes over dinner, in restaurants, still gives him the same brilliant smile. It’s just a rough period, he thinks, just a little matrimonial turbulence.

“She’s fine, really,” says Linus, dwelling. Roy and Edward exchange a look. The shrimp cocktails arrive.

“Ah,” says Roy. “Fresh frozen.”

*  *  *

Linus met Edward and Roy at the opening of the Conspiracy Museum in Dallas. Rectangular rooms filled with apprehensive men looking over narrow shoulders, drinking bottled water purchased independently to deter any governmental tampering with their bodily fluids. At the reception, the two led an impromptu seminar on how to avoid government security forces when visiting the Area 51 UFO testing area in Nevada.

“You need a four-wheel-drive vehicle,” they said. “Some good infrared camera equipment, plenty of beer.”

After the reception, which Claudia had found a way to avoid, Linus ended up in the museum parking lot with Edward and Roy drinking champagne from stolen bottles, slipping his shoes off to air the holes in his socks. There was a small series of confessions then between them, as if the three were participants in some prison support group or twelve-step program. First Edward, arms like pool cues, volunteered that he belonged to an unofficial organization of men known as skinny nervous guys: poorly shaven, Adam’s apple a little too prominent, awkward around women, uncomfortable with direct confrontation. Then Roy confessed that his wife left him for a Pontiac salesman from Boise a week before their third anniversary and the next day the bulldozer he was driving slipped into a ditch and broke his leg. He was trapped inside for ten hours staring at the carcasses of trees and the sinister circuitry of his crippled machine. When his leg healed he took the insurance settlement and moved to the Bay Area, bought a house in San Rafael, and did nothing but take computer classes for a year.

“There’s something about being pinned under a giant motor next to the carcasses of five-hundred-year-old trees that strips you of the ability to keep on killing,” he said. He felt the need to study machines in detail. He said, “It’s important to try to understand the things you fear most.”

The house he bought in San Rafael was small and run-down, a crippled runt in a neighborhood of villas. Two weeks later Edward moved into the Victorian next door. All it took was one beer for them to discover they shared a morbid fascination with the misty plots of ruling bodies and the secret doings of science. Soon afterward, financed mostly by Edward’s software portfolio, they invested in computer equipment and desktop publishing software, which they used to monitor government agencies from Roy’s basement and publish a bimonthly newsletter called Saucer Watch and a weekly titled American Conspiracy. In the newsletter Edward and Roy ran abductees’ stories, sightings, and conspiratorial speculations, driven mostly by the brainstorming of friends and frequent trips to desert military sites that are usually surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by dogs.

Linus swallowed what remained in the black Freixenet bottle. The world was full of stars and spinning pinwheels. He considered the possibility that he might be having an out-of-body experience.

“More booze,” said Roy, staggering to his feet and throwing the last empty champagne bottle into a Dumpster, where it broke with a rich, heavy crash. “We should stop our girlish whining and go find more booze.”

Edward moved his head somewhat ambiguously. Linus managed to get to his feet with the assistance of a brick wall and the sleek cold corner of the Dumpster, which he leaned on for support despite its rich aroma of restaurant leftovers and wet cardboard.

“I miss my wife,” Linus slurred. This was his confession. He was a man who could no longer sleep alone without landscaping the pillows beside him to simulate a human form.

The three of them wandered off onto the streets of Dallas, brushing clumsily at the seats of their pants and listing badly, first to one side, then the other. Buildings passed by in darkness, cars with their bright anonymous lights. Edward told them how Marilyn Monroe’s home had been bugged by J. Edgar Hoover and somewhere there was a tape of what really happened the night she died. Roy offered that one couldn’t get too close to the Kennedy brothers and live to tell about it. Linus lurched on toward the promise of fermented liquids. In this way they found themselves standing on the corner of Houston and Elm, swaying slightly and waiting for the light to change. None of them had to speak. They all knew they had arrived. It was an evening in October and late, 2:00, maybe 3:00 A.M. There was little traffic, the occasional headlight, a low wind pricking past their faces. The overpass beside them was a dark tunnel. Linus pulled his coat a little tighter, tried to think of something to say. They stood in the shadow of the world’s most famous book depository. Above them the light turned green.

“Bang,” said Edward.

“Pow, pow,” said Roy.

Just as eloquently, Linus turned around and threw up into the road.


The next thing


  • "Hidden in the cloak of a conspiracy thriller is a genre-buster of a book, a cunning, artistic, page-turning satire of our tenuous grasping at truth and free will."—Po Bronson, author of THE FIRST $20 MILLION IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST
  • "Orwellian echoes haunt this provocative, tongue-in-cheek debut chiller....A suspenseful, cerebral satire....

    Publishers Weekly
  • "Noah Hawley's writing is vivid and muscular. He speeds it up and slows it down in just the right places, and the portrait he paints of Linus is memorable. [He has a] true gift for characters."
    San Francisco Chronicle
  • "Energetic and funny...an engrossing debut."—The New York Times

On Sale
Jun 5, 2018
Page Count
304 pages

Noah Hawley

Noah Hawley

About the Author

Award‑winning author Noah Hawley is one of the most accomplished auteurs and versatile storytellers working in television, film and literature. Over the course of his more than 20-year career, Hawley's work as a novelist, screenwriter, series creator, showrunner and director has garnered acclaim—winning an Emmy®, Golden Globe®, PEN, Critics’ Choice, and Peabody Award. As a bestselling author, Hawley has published six novels: A Conspiracy of Tall MenOther People’s WeddingsThe PunchThe Good FatherBefore the Fall and the upcoming Anthem.

Learn more about this author