Conspiracy theories seem tailor-made for fiction. They contain all the elements a great adventure story calls for: a David and Goliath-like contest (between members of the powerful cabal and the unempowered men or women who oppose them); life-or-death scenarios (as the underdogs attempt to foil organizations that will stop at nothing to protect their interests); a stark contrast between the good and evil players in the drama; and a maze of half-truths, lies, and deceptions that must be successfully identified as misdirections in order for the heroes to arrive at the truth.

It should all make for a good yarn, and yet I don’t end up buying as many conspiracy stories as I’d expect to. Not that there aren’t many excellent novels and stories belonging to the category. My favorite at novel length is The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and EQMM’s contributor Brendan DuBois excels at this type of thriller at short-story length, as does James Powell (in a much more humorous vein) with his stories involving the evil Dr. Ludwig Fong. But those are the good ones. The problem I have with many of the conspiracy stories I see is that they assume a cohesiveness among, and competence on the part of, the evildoers that’s not very believable to me. And that’s fine as long as the reader isn’t expected to take it all too seriously. But a lot of these types of stories take themselves very seriously indeed.

It’s possible, though, that I’ve simply become a little biased against the conspiracy story by the growing number of people in the real world who see evidence of vast worldwide conspiracies of one sort or another in every turn in the economy, change in social values, or personal misfortune. Conspiracy theories may make good fiction, but they’re generally lousy—and even dangerous—explanations for actual events. When I first posted on this subject several years ago, nine members of the Michigan Christian militia called “Hutaree” had just been arrested, accused of planning to kill a police officer and use his funeral as an opportunity for a terrorist bomb attack. The case was never proved and, as far as I know, the organization continues to exist, inspired by the millenialist belief that Obama is the Anti-Christ and head of a vast conspiracy involving law enforcement and an attempt to create a new totalitarian world order. This particular conspiracy theory might seem easy to deride, but how different is it really from some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the JKF assassination? Take away the Anti-Christ element and belief in a vast conspiracy involving law enforcement sounds a lot like the belief many have held that the C.I.A. and the Secret Service conspired in the Kennedy assassination. My point is that many perfectly rational people believe in conspiracy theories for which there is no hard evidence at all. It almost seems as if the attractiveness these sorts of explanations of events have is hardwired in the human brain.

I turned CNN on last week and one of the myriad theories I heard offered for what had happened to the missing Malaysian Airlines jet was that Muslim radicals had taken it over with the aim of flying it to Somalia (the implication being they might have succeeded and landed there). A map was displayed showing how it could have been done—and it looked consistent with the scanty evidence that existed to that point pinning down the plane’s location. This particular theory was offered by a professor at a respected college, someone in whom I’d have expected scholarly training to have created the habit of sticking to evidence. I’m certainly not qualified to comment on whatever science (or social science) might support such an idea, but really, it seemed to me he was getting way ahead of himself. I’m reminded here of the famous line from Sherlock Holmes: ”How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I think we can add, while remaining true to Holmes, that before entertaining the far-fetched, improbable solution, the rational thing to do is surely first to eliminate—in Holmesian terms show to be “impossible”—the more likely and commonplace scenarios. Only then must we turn to—and perhaps accept as true—the improbable.

Yet as I watched the various commentators on CNN weigh in on the missing airplane I couldn’t help feeling that—the outcome in regard to loss of life being equal—many of the talking heads would rather one of the more colorful theories involving intricate planning and conspiracy, like a Somalia landing, turned out to be true. There was an air of suppressed excitement about it all and again, it struck me that people are naturally gripped by (and inclined to believe in) the improbable, complex schemes of which conspiracy theories are made—even when they know that there are very few proven instances of successful real-life large-scale conspiracies.

In fiction, for the sheer fun of it, I’ll go along with an author and pretend to believe in secret cabals whose members are capable of acting in perfect concert, with superhuman efficiency and unwavering purpose, over vast stretches of time and space. But in real-life the type of example we have of a proven conspiracy is Watergate—and what an incompetent conspiracy that was—political slush-fund cash found on the burglars, self-taping of incriminating conversations, and all.

Of course, Islamic terrorists have been tragically successful in some of their conspiracies over the past couple of decades. That might seem a strong counter-example to what I’m arguing. And it would be, except that terrorists are rarely secretive about their purposes. They often put out manifestos of their aims and quickly claim credit once a goal has been achieved. And one of the things that intrigues the human mind about a conspiracy, I believe, is the secretiveness involved not only in regard to a particular imminent event, but in terms of who is behind it and what their motives are. Conspiracy is better left to fiction because in real life human beings are just not very good at concealing such fundamental things about themselves for long periods of time, and in conjunction with others—at least, that’s how I see it.

It’s interesting that the conspiracy thriller, one of whose emotional elements is paranoia, has historically not only reflected its times (becoming popular during the seventies, for instance, perhaps as a result of Watergate) but may have a role in reinforcing the paranoia of an era. At least, some of those who have studied groups such as Hutaree have argued that there is a correlation between the popularity of conspiracy fiction and the spread of the kinds of beliefs that animate such groups—especially the belief that secret forces are working to create a new world order.

I said at the beginning of this post that I’d expect to be buying more conspiracy thrillers than I actually do, given the suspenseful elements of which they’re necessarily composed. Since I’m not a believer in real-life conspiracy theories, I think one of the keys to reaching me with fiction on that theme is to employ a bit of humor—write it with at least a little bit of tongue in cheek. But I will not offer that as a hard and fast rule, because I sometimes buy perfectly serious conspiracy stories, and let’s face it, a really good writer can make even a sceptic believe in his or her story.—Janet Hutchings

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  1. Janet: As perhaps a counterpoint to your thought-provoking piece above, this morning I heard on CNN the lawyer Jamie Gorelick, former US Deputy Atty. General and member of the 911 Commission. She said that a criticism the committee formed of our intelligence agencies’ activities BEFORE the 911 attack was their “lack of imagination.” And who among us will ever forget Condi Rice’s testimony before the congressional committee when she said (paraphrased): No one could have imagined that anyone would fly a plane into a building. Of course we readers of thrillers knew she was dead wrong. May the mystery writers’ muse forgive my memory block, but at the moment I cannot remember the name of the best-selling author who imagined exactly that. I’ll be writing a blog in a few weeks that should be a companion piece to yours.

    • Janet Hutchings says:

      That’s very interesting, Miriam! Not just a failure of imagination, though—maybe not even primarily so? The FBI was specifically warned prior to the 9/11 attacks, by Zacarias Moussaoui’s flight instructor, that a 747 could be used as a bomb in a suicide attack. The method—if not the target—occurred to the flight instructor right away. He had a pretty good idea of what Moussaoui might be trying to do. Looking forward to your blog!

  2. Robert Lopresti says:

    I think the science fiction Robert Heinlein said, approximately, that most actual conspiracies consist of one person doing something stupid, and then a lot of smart people trying to cover it up.

  3. Pingback: “The Mystery Gene” (by Miriam Grace Monfredo) | SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

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