Palumbo’s fourth novel in the series, PHANTOM LIMB, opens with psychologist and Pittsburgh police department consultant Daniel Rinaldi’s new patient: Lisa Campbell, a local girl whose lurid, short-lived Hollywood career sent her scurrying back to the Steel City. Now married to one of the city’s richest tycoons, she comes to Danny’s office with a challenge: talk her out of committing suicide. Though he buys some time, she’s kidnapped right outside his office. The search for Lisa pits the police—and Danny—against a lethal adversary. At the same time, he tries to assist a friend’s brother, a bitter Afghan vet who lost a leg in combat, whose own life now appears at risk. Or is it?
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (including My Favorite Year and Welcome Back, Kotter), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author. His acclaimed series of crime novels (MIRROR IMAGE, FEVER DREAM, NIGHT TERRORS and the upcoming PHANTOM LIMB) feature psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh police. All are from Poisoned Pen Press.
You’ve had a fascinating career—screenwriter to psychotherapist to novelist. As a psychotherapist, do you find this background provides insights into human behavior and/or helps develop the hero, villain, and perhaps the victim in your novels?
Definitely! I think the merging of my two careers—seventeen years as a TV/film writer and nearly three decades as a psychotherapist—has benefitted both the writing in general, and my exploration of human behavior in particular. Certainly my ongoing study of trauma has contributed to my understanding of the psychological issues with which the crime victims in my novels grapple. As for my hero, psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, my experience as a therapist in private practice—as well as time spent working in clinics and a psychiatric hospital—has given me a unique perspective on what might motivate a guy like him. As it turns out, he and I share a lot of the same ideas about the flaws in the mental health system and how psychotherapy is practiced. Go figure.
Although officially set in Pittsburgh, your Daniel Rinaldi series has avoided the “Cabot Cove” (kill everyone in town) effect through varied locations for the four books. How important do you believe setting and secondary characters are to a series?
I’m glad that you noticed how varied the locales are in the novels, even though they’re ostensibly set in Pittsburgh. Over the course of the four books (so far!), the stories have taken readers to rural Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Ohio and West Virginia.
I think this gives me greater freedom in the writing, since I’m not forced to situate all the action in Pittsburgh proper. Especially since I believe setting is crucial to giving visual interest and narrative vitality to the story. Just as I believe having interesting, believable secondary characters are crucial to the success of any long-term series. They add realism and context to the world of the hero. In fact, their interaction with my lead character actually helps define him. Moreover, if the emails I get are any indication, readers seem to enjoy watching the series’ secondary characters grow and change. I know I sure do!
As a follow up, I noticed Rinaldi’s love interest has a background role. What place do you see for relationships in action adventures or in suspense in general?
Again, I think the exploration of relationships is crucial to giving any suspense novel realism, depth, and relevancy. If the characters, and the ways they interact, aren’t compelling, why should we care what happens to them? The way I see it, good writing of any type depends on conflict, which derives from the expression of strong emotions. Moreover, if the stakes aren’t high—personally or professionally—for your characters, the reader’s investment in the story won’t be very high, either.
Daniel Rinaldi is a non-law enforcement protagonist who often takes on an independent investigative role, generally chasing the villains in superb action adventure scenes. How do you balance the fine line between a driven character and a reckless risk-taker?
In Rinaldi’s case, I’m afraid there’s not much of a fine line. Practically every person in his life decries his “hero complex.” One of his colleagues on the force, Sgt. Harry Polk, is constantly reminding Rinaldi that he’s not a cop. But one of the things I strive for in the writing is to show how his emotional wounds, his own personal demons, compel a good deal of Rinaldi’s actions. And how this behavior is the counterpoint to his clear professionalism as a therapist.
Your books are known for well-written action and pace. Do you find this emphasis the nature of the genre or do you think it reflects a larger society or perhaps today’s shorter attention span?
Wow, that question may be above my pay grade! I do think a modern crime thriller needs thrills as well as crime, as long as the action scenes are realistic and seem to emerge naturally from the situation. So as not to seem to dodge the broader question, I do think crime novels reflect society, and have always done so. When I think of 1880s London, my reference point is the Holmes canon. My image of the Boston underworld is half George V. Higgins, half Dennis Lehane. The author Tom Wolfe said that the novel—any novel—has always served to describe a culture’s “status details,” the issues, trends, and mores of the society that the particular novel depicts. This is as true of crime novels as it is of general fiction.
Going back to your psychotherapist role, I found you’re described as a specialist in creative issues. Could you expand on that role?
After all my years as a TV and film writer, as well as a novelist and short story writer going back to the 1970’s, I figured that specializing in creative issues made sense when I started my therapy practice. Though most of my patients are writers in the entertainment industry, I also have novelists and journalists in my practice. As well as some musicians and actors. In my experience, creative people all tend to struggle with the same kinds of issues, regardless of medium or genre: “blocks,” procrastination, fear of rejection, anxiety, depression, and so on. Not to mention the havoc that having creative ambitions can play on relationships! As Robert Frost said, “The one thing all nations on earth share is the fear that a member of the family is going to want to be an artist.”
Tell us something about PHANTOM LIMB that isn’t mentioned in the publisher’s synopsis.
The character of Skip Hines, a returning vet who lost a leg to an IED in Afghanistan, suffers from “phantom limb” syndrome: the strange sensation that his missing limb is still there. That it itches sometimes, and feels the cold. As I got deeper into the writing, I realized that his phantom limb symptoms were a metaphor for the felt sense of loss we all experience sometimes in life. The death of a loved one, a painful divorce. That feeling that the person is not really gone from our lives. That their presence is still with us, as though a tangible thing. Given that Daniel Rinaldi’s wife was murdered, and his father died of alcoholism, he can really relate to Skip’s feeling that something that is gone is still, uncannily, there. At least in his mind.
Okay, enough with the business questions! How about some fun stuff? You know, just between the two of us. If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to do onsite research, where would it be?
Easy. Two places I’ve already been and am desperate to re-visit. The first is Nepal, where I trekked for weeks in the Himals. The landscape is breathtaking, the Nepali people the kindest and most generous of spirit I’ve ever encountered. The second place couldn’t be more different: Oxford, whose history and architecture really speaks to the Anglophile in me. I’d love to spend my dotage sitting under a thousand-year-old gargoyle, in some shadowed, forgotten corner of some shadowed, forgotten gothic building, with a glass of Pinot Noir and a good book.
What are you reading now for pleasure?
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt. What an amazing writer!
What’s next for you?
Diving into the fifth Daniel Rinaldi novel. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of trouble the poor guy is going to get into next.
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (MY FAVORITE YEAR; WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author. His acclaimed series of crime
novels (MIRROR IMAGE, FEVER DREAM, NIGHT TERRORS and the upcoming PHANTOM LIMB) feature psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. All are from Poisoned Pen Press.
To learn more about Dennis, please visit his website.