REVIEW: A Conspiracy of Tall Men by Noah Hawley

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Read this book for: conspiracy thriller, dark humour, twisting plot, amateur investigator, unique story premise

Quick Review: Understated, twisting, challenging and playful; Hawley gives a masterclass in balanced, fascinating writing and intricate plotting.


Linus Owen is a young professor of conspiracy theory at a small college just outside San Francisco. He teaches graduate-level classes on JFK and gives seminars on magic-bullet theories and how the symbols on the dollar bill reveal the presence of a secret government that is leading the world to ruin.

Linus’ marriage is foundering and his wife, Claudia, an up-and-coming advertising executive, 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 Edward and Roy — his friends and fellow conspiracy theorists — Linus heads across the country in search of answers. Along the way, the trio encounters a legion of disturbing and provocative characters and clues, including an irascible talk show host, a mind-controlling drug, and art emerging link between Claudia’s ad agency and the U.S, Government. 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.

A CONSPIRACY OF TALL MEN is the second novel that Emmy Award-winning writer Noah Hawley has brought his unique sense of twisting story and dark humour to; a story of conspiracy upon conspiracy about the death of a man’s wife in a plane crash of a flight she should not have been on. Hawley’s deft touch is on display here as it was in his previous, unrelated novel, BEFORE THE FALL (you can find the review here).

However, in this story, Hawley takes on a far more ambitious plot. With its twisting layers of conspiracy theories, one crazier than the next but all of them with the potential to hold a grain of truth, Hawley builds a vertigo-inducing spiral of theories about the investigation that make you doubt everything you are being told — which is his ultimate point. It’s a straightforward read, but the seeming frankness of the conspiracies in the open manages to hide a particularly intricate plot.

Part of what contributes to that intricacy is the weirdness of the characters. No stereotypes here — no one is what they seem, and they continue to surprise you with their interesting quirks throughout. They have a wonderfully unpredictable edge that makes the plot even more difficult to guess at.

All of this plot is lightened with a reasonably large dose of Hawley’s dark humour, and a really interesting stylistic choice where the omniscient narrator frequently breaks the narrative to give you a bit more information about a character or situation, letting you know how they end up in the future of more information than they are letting on. It would be almost too much of a playful wink to the reader, if not for Hawley’s down-to-earth writing style and unvarnished language choices.

Together, this story is a beautifully balanced novel of understated brilliance, that doesn’t fit comfortably into any one genre (except maybe the broad category of ’thriller’). Pick up A CONSPIRACY OF TALL MEN, and both new and returning Hawley fans will find something to enjoy!

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