Meg Gardiner still vividly remembers when her quiet Santa Barbara, Calif., neighborhood was disrupted by extreme violence. “Between 1979 and 1981,” she says, “one couple was assaulted and two more were murdered in their homes, virtually around the corner from my family’s house.”

Gardiner recalls the aftermath of these events and how deeply they affected her community and its sense of security. The murders
went unsolved until 2018, when authorities arrested a suspect in the slayings, which had previously been linked to the notorious Golden
State Killer. “Those of us who grew up in the area were shocked and chilled,” she says. “Our neighborhood had been a predator’s hunting ground. The killer almost certainly prowled past my house while choosing his targets and must have run along our street to escape after his second deadly attack. The case has cast deep shadows across my memories.”

But Gardiner channels those memories into her novels—three series, three standalones, and counting—about female detectives in pursuit of serial murderers. Gardiner’s latest, The Dark Corners of the Night, is the third book in her UNSUB series about FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix. The first two installments—UNSUB and Into the Black Nowhere—were loosely based on the Zodiac Killer and Ted Bundy, respectively. The Dark Corners of the Night is inspired by the crimes of Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker: a mysterious killer known as the Midnight Man is breaking into Los Angeles homes, slaying parents, and leaving their children alive as tiny witnesses.

Though Gardiner’s books are fiction, she says achieving a certain level of verisimilitude is vital to her work. To that end, she watches documentaries, reads relevant books and histories, and consults archival materials, including police and FBI reports. She has also attended FBI seminars and gone on police ride-alongs. “I want to understand these killers’ psychology, motives, and behavior,” Gardiner says. “And I need to know how the authorities grapple with these cases. I am inspired by the women of the FBI and local law enforcement who shoulder the burden of investigating violent crime. They step up to stop the worst of the worst.” The same could be said of Caitlin Hendrix in The Dark Corners of the Night.

A behavioral analyst for the FBI, Hendrix is among Gardiner’s favorite characters. “Caitlin is close to my heart,” she says. “She’s a guardian—and a hunter. Her job is tough, but she’s a cop’s daughter and has inherited a sense of duty to protect others.”

And while a fascination with the darkest corners of human nature might seem unusual, Gardiner says true crime books are extremely popular for good reason. “It’s an electric mix of curiosity and fear,” she says. “Serial killers transgress all boundaries, legal and moral. But they present a facade of normality: They blend in. They have jobs. They host barbecues. They’re savage, yet average. This disconnect both rivets and frightens us. We want to know that these killers can be defeated, that we can rip off their masks, see them as they really are, and stop them.”

In creating characters who do just that, Gardiner herself sounds a bit like a detective. “I brainstorm, research, outline, come up with 12 story lines, and tear my hair out trying to narrow them down to one,” she says. “I find myself surrounded by printouts and sticky notes and grocery lists on which I scribbled seemingly brilliant insights that now look illegible. I stagger from my desk, stumble outside, shrink from the glare of the sun, careen back inside, and sit down to revise the heaping pile of words.”

Gardiner is currently writing the fourth book in the UNSUB series, and there’s a television series based on the books in the works. But, like any good detective in the middle of an investigation, she isn’t able to disclose much yet. “That’s all I’m going to reveal,” she says, “because keeping readers in suspense is the essence of my job.”