By Josie Brown
If you’re looking for an author with a versatile voice, no one fits the bill like John Lutz. At your local bookstore, you’ll find his award-winning novels shelved under Police Procedurals, Espionage, Thriller, and Historical. You’ll also be impressed with the numerous awards he’s garnered: the MWA’s Edgar, the PWA’s Shamus, not to mention the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hollywood likes what it reads, too. Lutz’s novel SWF SEEKS SAME was made into SINGLE WHITE FEMALE with Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and his book THE EX was an HBO movie.
His new novel, FRENZY, is the latest in his series featuring Frank Quinn, a former homicide detective, who goes up against a serial killer he’s crossed paths with before.
Lutz explains why the murderer deserves an encore.
Why bring back this particular nemesis of Frank Quinn’s?
I suppose I sensed that this villain had more to offer. Also, he seemed capable of producing the most angst in Quinn. Quinn understands that it takes a thief to catch a thief, and that might also apply in various ways when it comes to serial killers. It’s the timeless relationship of hunter and hunted.
The body count is fast and furious in this book. It starts out with six dead women in a hotel room, all of whom were tortured before being murdered–same night, same man. How did the plot for FRENZY come to you?
Possibly Richard Speck gave me the idea. The murders of eight student nurses in the same place at the same time seemed almost incomprehensibly tragic. Also infuriating, because Speck, until the time of his death, seemed only mildly ruffled by the pain and horror he had wrought.
An early scene in the book shows how seduction and abuse play interesting parts in FRENZY, especially as it pertains to the killer’s past. From your research, do you feel killers are born, or are they made from their personal circumstances?
That’s a much-pondered question. No one seems to know the answer. It is true that most serial killers have experienced terrible childhoods, but then most people who experienced terrible childhoods don’t become serial killers. Generally, serial killers turn out to be among the last sort of people anyone would suspect of such crimes. That is their camouflage. They can escape suspicion for years, playing the harmless and guileless. That kind of incongruity is what makes them unknowable and particularly dangerous.
What is the hardest thing about writing about serial killers?
Making them, in part, objects of pity. The reader doesn’t have to like them, but they must be interesting. The reader, of course, is privy to the killer’s interior life.
What is your process for police procedural research?
Years ago I worked as a civilian employee of the Saint Louis Metropolitan Police Department, keeping track of cars and beat cops, et cetera, and gained some knowledge as to how cops view and live life. That for the most part hasn’t changed much. For more detailed knowledge I talk with former cops. Also, the Internet is a great research tool. And some books are good for research, such as Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood. What’s more important is to portray cops as readers see them. Sometimes the fictional will suggest more reality than the actual.
A great detective ages like a fine wine. What have you done with Quinn to make him even wiser and more insightful since our last encounter with him, and what is your technique for keeping him fresh, both for your readers, and for you, as your subject?
I like to think that Quinn does get wiser and more insightful with each book, and the reader, consciously or subconsciously, knows that. Experience is forging Quinn into a more potent force as well as increasing his individuality.
You are also the master of the short story. How do your processes differ in short- and long-form? What is the determining factor as to whether a short story has the legs to be taken to a full-length novel? How many of your shorts became full-length novels?
About ten percent have become novels, as they were intended to be from the beginning. Most of the Nudger novels were originally published in AHMM as novelettes or lengthy short stories. But as you point out, most short stories don’t have the legs. They usually depend upon one or two interesting facts or scenes or twists, and then the questions I ask myself: “what if, and then what if?” don’t yield interesting enough answers.
You’ve also written screenplays. How does that process differ, especially when you adapt one of your own books—like you did with “The Ex,” which ran on HBO?
I haven’t done much screenwriting, but it didn’t take me long to learn that for most of us it is a tricky medium. It alters the rules of print fiction. Novelists, for instance, don’t have to be as cognizant of real time, as do screenwriters. It’s not a bad idea to use a stopwatch when writing a screenplay.
What are some of the highs and lows of working with Hollywood (film and TV) versus New York (publishing)?
Dream world west, dream world east. If a comet were streaking toward Earth, people in New York would protest. People in Hollywood would dress up. I seem to be one of the few fiction writers who had a pleasurable experience with the movie world. Biggest moment? Seeing my name among the credits. Biggest letdown? Learning that the movie was altered before release. All in all, no complaints.
What are you working on now, and when will we see it in print?
The Quinn novel, FRENZY, has just come out this week. I’m currently working on another Quinn book, tentatively titled SLAUGHTER. But don’t let the title (or the author) fool you.
Ah, John, but that’s just it—we love it when you pull one over on us. So, keep it up.
John Lutz is the author of more than forty-five novels and 200 short stories. His awards include the Edgar, Shamus, and Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Award. His work has been published in most languages and adapted for almost every medium. He is past president of both Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America. His latest book is the thriller FRENZY.
To learn more about John, please visit his website.
You can hear a more extensive version of this interview on Josie Brown’s Author Provocateur podcast.