The following is a foreword included in Noah Hawley’s new reissue of A Conspiracy of Tall Men, which was originally publishing in 1999. Hawley is the award-winning creator of Fargo and Legion and the author of Before the Fall, which won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel.
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.
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.
Winner of the 2017 EDGAR AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL and the 2017 INTERNATIONAL THRILLER WRITERS AWARD FOR BEST NOVEL FROM THE AWARD-WINNING CREATOR OF FARGO COMES "ONE THE YEAR'S BEST SUSPENSE NOVELS" (NEW YORK TIMES). On a foggy summer night, eleven people--ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter--depart Martha's Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are the painter Scott Burroughs and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul's family.
Was it by chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something more sinister at work? A storm of media attention brings Scott fame that quickly morphs into notoriety and accusations, and he scrambles to salvage truth from the wreckage. Amid trauma and chaos, the fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy grows and glows at the heart of this stunning novel, raising questions of fate, morality, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.
Kristin Hannah raves, "Noah Hawley really knows how to keep a reader turning the pages... a complex, compulsively readable thrill ride of a novel."