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A CONSPIRACY OF TALL MEN
By Noah Hawley

Pocket Books, Paperback, 1999, 370pp, $14.00

Reviewed by Anthony Neil Smith

The paranoid thriller. Hawley has taken the American pulse--conspiracy theory, X-Files, Millennialism--and has written an interesting novel that ties one man's search for the answers behind his wife's death into the underground network of those who don't trust the government. My one thought: Not a bad book, but how far can you go with this?

I am tired of hearing conspiracy nuts, really. Wild-assed theories that tend to simplify all of the operations of the world by dividing them into two groups: us, and those who want to control us. It's all CIA, UN, New World Order, biological tests and weapons, on and on. It's late night radio talk shows about the Men in Black and the true story of the UFO cover-up. (No aliens in this book, though) And I think Hawley is playing with ideas and concerns about these things in this book. In the end, maybe he plays them a little too sincerely for my part, but the conspiracy seems like window dressing here when the reader realizes that the real story is about Linus Owen's search for identity after a lifetime of being led around by the nose.

Owen is a professor of conspiracy theory--a branch of history, it seems--who teaches JFK government cover-up and all those hot button topics. And then he is told that the plane on which his wife was a passenger has been blown up by a bomb. Instead of dealing with his grief immediately, the professor in Linus wants to know why it happened. He wants to dig under the FBI investigation and use his skills to find the true sinister nature of the bombing. But it's really denial. It keeps him busy. And after all he goes through, uncovering real secrets and recruiting friends to help, Linus' search takes him out of the cozy world of academic conspiracy theory and into a world where it is a life-or-death philosophy. He is forced to reevaluate his positions on everything he believes, and is then faced with the possibility that his wife might still be alive. And perhaps the only way to see her is to give in to those underground folks who want to recruit him as a pawn in their chess match with the government.

There's a lot here, and I didn't give anything away. There's a good reason for the title--read it and see. There's the cross-country chases, the shadowy characters, the layers upon layers of cover-ups, a question of what "truth" really means. But through it all, I felt tired. I went over all the standard ground of conspiracy theory again, nothing new. The book is alive when Linus is running around looking for answers to the explosion, to his wife's whereabouts, and to why the government is watching him so carefully. Dead when Hawley lays on the paranoia in general. It is Linus' nagging questions about the motivations of the conspiracy theorists that are fascinating here. I think the book is halfway there, and certainly a bit different from other government conspiracy novels, but that is because of the depth of Linus Owen as a character.

It's a taste thing, too. People who like dabbling in all the conspiracy theory fiction like X-Files, Millennium, Harsh Realm (Gee, is there a pattern there?) will enjoy this immensely, as with anyone who is looking for a more full-bodied thriller than the usual bestseller fluff. Pretty good book, with a couple of reservations, not worth killing the ride over.


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