Reality bites: Addle your brain with five conspiracy-soaked novels

Jon Foro on September 12, 2019
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This post began as a list of books about conspiracy theories —and actual conspiracies — in the real world. I thought it would be easy enough to throw together; there are several appropriate forthcoming and recent books, including Peter Pomerantsev's This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,  Brian Brown's Someone Is Out to Get Us: A Not So Brief History of Cold War Paranoia and Madness (November 5), and Stephen Kinzer's Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control (an Amazon.com best books of the month selection for September). There are more — you see, we're having a moment.

So I started building that list. But then I became sad and exhausted at the current state of critical thinking, so I decided to throw in a couple of conspiracy-minded novels to leaven the mood. I was still bummed out! So I scrapped the nonfiction entirely, and things became fun again. There's something thrilling about good conspiracy novels. They can be fact-based (if only quasi), yet completely unrestrained and outlandish. Are Templars hoarding he Holy Grail while broadcasting their secrets in coded messages on dollar bills? Sure, why not? This isn't the real world.

Or is it? Here are five books to help you escape from our escapist reality.



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Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Even Umberto Eco — a professor of semiotics, philosopher, master of multiple languages, and generally intimidating academic — thought that cockamamie ideas can be a heck of a lot of fun. Foucault's Pendulum concocts the mother of all conspiracies, connecting the Knights Templar to Opus Dei to Satanists to Cthulhu to the Illuminati to a countless legendary characters and secret societies in a self-fulfilling end-of-the-world plot. It's ambitious, arcane, and weird, and a great springboard for further research for tinfoil-chapeau'd set.


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The Illuminatus! Trilogy: The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, Leviathan by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson

Shea and Wilson's multi-book, sci-fi-tinged opus operates under a similar paradigm as Foucault's Pendulum (though it pre-dates it, and could be its forebear), veering between Egyptian mythology, the JFK assassination, drugs, and the authors' own invented conspiracies to create an underground literary classic, one that  defies rational description or classification (you might have already discerned that). Expanding on the ideas of The Principia Discordia — a founding text of Discordianism, a (possibly!) tongue-in-cheek religion revealed in the 1960s for these "screwed up times" — The Illuminatus Trilogy! received the prestigious Prometheus Hall of Fame Award for excellence in libertarian science fiction.


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The Eight: A Novel by Katherine Neville

Okay, you're in Algeria on a work trip for your accounting firm. Naturally, you have a fortune teller read your palm, and the forecast is Danger. Then, a mysterious antiques dealer appears with an offer: Find the missing pieces to an ancient chess set — one reputed to possess tremendous power — and a generous reward is yours. As an employee of an accounting firm, you have no choice but to accept. Just be warned: You're not alone. 


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The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte

How about an occult-tinged mystery for bibliophiles? Like Eco, Perez-Reverte had a penchant for intellectual conspiracy thrillers, and The Club Dumas drops hard-boiled antiquarian book detective Lucas Corso (what a job!) into a devilish, globe-trotting plot involving unscrupulous collectors, sex, magic, murder, and the pursuit of an original manuscript of The Three Musketeers.


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The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon) by Dan Brown

Though it's the most obvious choice for a list like this, it would be suspicious to exclude it. Brown's recipe was genius. Start with the juiciest bits from the most secretive of secret societies, factual or otherwise. Stir in murder, Leonardo, cryptology, and a troubled genius, and you get a video game-like series of action and puzzle-solving that teases the reader's imagination. Not to mention a colossal bestseller. 


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