The American tradition of political paranoia isn’t new — just ask Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, circa 1800 — but that doesn’t mean the latest version of it can’t be annoying to those of us living through it. Meg Gardiner knows all about that feeling, as she explains in this Big Idea about The Liar’s Lullaby, her latest mystery featuring her forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett. The good news is that she was able to turn her annoyance into creativity. Not that it was was easy…
Delusions can be dangerous. And not only to the delusional.
That reality—that warning—underpins The Liar’s Lullaby. I’m not just talking about clinical delusions, such as I can fly or The microwave wants me to stab you. I mean political delusions—conspiracy theories about secret government plots to destroy America. Extravagant fantasies that involve Them, and their sneaky cousins, They.
The Liar’s Lullaby is a thriller with a political tinge. It asks: How can you tell reality from delusion? How do you sort legitimate threats from fantasy? And because it’s a thriller, and has to, you know, thrill, the heroes must answer those questions right damned now, or people die.
In the story, country-rock star Tasia McFarland is killed by a gunshot as she makes a spectacular entrance at a stadium concert. The San Francisco police can’t determine whether her death is entertainment’s worst stunt catastrophe, a desperate suicide, or murder. Tasia had warned people that she was going to be assassinated. But she had a history of paranoia and erratic behavior. So the SFPD asks forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett to perform a psychological autopsy to uncover the truth.
But the case pulls Jo into a whirlpool of media hysteria, conspiracy theory, and political hardball, because Tasia wasn’t just a singer. She was the ex-wife of the President of the United States.
The novel’s about the collision of fame and power. Also about the collision of helicopters, country-western singers, celebrity stalkers, White House minions, violent right-wing militants, and a television reporter from the Channel of the Blondes.
The big idea is: The Celebrity-Political complex has turned conspiracy-mongering into an American sport. It’s both crazy and deadly. To sort truth from fiction, it’s going to take a shrink. Jo must find out whether there’s a real conspiracy, one that threatens the President.
The Liar’s Lullaby is the third novel featuring Jo Beckett. I got the idea for the book after spending too much time imbibing U.S. political news. I keep up with current events diligently. Okay, obsessively, but don’t call me a news junkie. I’m an author—it’s research. Sure, if I could mainline the New York Times via Ethernet cable, I would. But I can quit any time.
What I couldn’t quit doing, for ages, was shouting at the television whenever some wingnut spewed a fever dream about FEMA concentration camps or the looming Obama commie-sharia tyranny. The anti-government rhetoric had gone beyond shrill, up into the notes only dogs can hear.
This high-pressure spray can of hysteria is nothing new. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” was published in 1964. But today, demagogues at the freaky end of the EM spectrum amp up the static and serve outrage as entertainment, night and day. It’s so loud, I can’t keep track of who’s destroying America this week. Miss USA? The Jonas Brothers?
Psychiatrists speak of “consensus reality.” In the paranoid subculture, people have formed a consensus unreality. They eagerly swallow the craziest lies. They crave proof the world is about to fall into the side pocket—because they’re gonna fight back.
But when commando wannabes show up at political rallies dressed like characters from The Unit, they aren’t restoring Norman Rockwell’s America. They’re indulging in fantasies of political violence. They’re playing Apocalypse, holding a karaoke revolution. Hey, kids, let’s put on an insurrection in my dad’s barn! You bring the camo, I’ll bring the ammo. Wolverines!
Tragically, these fantasies don’t always stay confined to the mind.
So this stuff made me nuts. As in wishing I had a white jumpsuit and an Elvis wig—not so I could shoot the television, but to scare the TV into thinking that if it didn’t stop puking this nonsense, I just might. Finally, things got to the place where my kids pointed the remote at me and hit Mute.
So I did the sensible thing, and shut up. And wrote a novel.
Fortunately, I had Jo on deck. She’s a consultant who analyzes the dead for the cops. When the police can’t determine whether a person’s death is suicide, accident, or murder, Jo performs a psychological autopsy. She’s a deadshrinker.
The hard part in writing the book was suppressing the urge to snark. When I see delusional losers, I want to expose them—to write them as idiots, and to have them fall, hard. I want readers to point at them and laugh, Ha-ha, Nelson Muntz-style. But in a thriller, idiots make lousy villains. Idiots get caught, ten pages in.
So I wrote about delusional losers who’ve been seduced by a deadly fantasy. They’re fanatics—they believe they’re the righteous few who can light the fire and cleanse the nation. They won’t stop for anything. And that puts the heroine’s back up against it.
Jo has to solve the puzzle of Tasia McFarland’s death before anybody else gets killed. But the political and media free-for-all becomes a circular firing squad, and Jo ends up at its center. And Jo isn’t a superhero, she’s a normal gal who’s smart, intrepid, and physically brave—but vulnerable. And in this story, she must figure how to stay in the consensus reality known as alive and breathing.
One thing—the novel isn’t nonstop death and intrigue. At one point, the story turns on the actions of an out-of-control monkey.
Thrillers should thrill, but should also be fun. I want you to hang on by your fingernails as the story careens toward the cliff. And that’s not crazy. It’s not delusional. It’s the suspension of disbelief. And, I hope, a hell of a ride.