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Interview: October 30, 2009

October 30, 2009

URGE TO KILL, John Lutz's fourth novel to feature protagonist Frank Quinn, finds the former NYPD police detective leaving retirement in order to investigate two strings of serial murders that may have been committed by the same killer. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Lutz explains how an observation made during his stint as a civilian employee with the St. Louis PD prompted him to focus this series on older, more experienced members of law enforcement, and why he chose a rather unlikely setting for one of the book's most chilling scenes. He also reflects on the appeal of serial murders for thriller readers, selects his dream cast if the novel were ever to be adapted to film, and shares some of his favorite reads from the last several months. Your new novel, URGE TO KILL, features the return of one of the more interesting and unusual teams in detective fiction. Frank Quinn, a former New York City police detective, accompanied by Pearl, his former flame --- for whom he still feels a flicker --- and the reliable Fedderman are investigating two sets of serial killings that may, or may not, be the work of the same killer. They are retired law enforcement investigators well into their middle age, past the time when they would be kicking down doors and rousting suspects. What spurred you to decide to write a series around a trio for whom age and guile were assets and not liabilities, and for whom retirement was simply the beginning of a new career?
John Lutz: I worked for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police years ago and observed that detective work required guile and experience. These assets could be found in abundance in the older detectives, who at the same time retained most of their physical skills. They let the younger detectives kick open doors.
BRC: Hunting is a major theme in URGE TO KILL, with respect to both a very unique business enterprise and the selection, seduction and execution of unwitting victims. Have you ever been a hunter? If not, where did you acquire the extensive knowledge of some of the finer points of hunting, and its aftermath, that are displayed in the book?
JL: I did some hunting when I was younger and then one day decided that it wasn’t for me. What I wrote in URGE TO KILL was both the product of memory and of research.
BRC: Some of the most chilling passages occur almost a quarter of the way through the book, where the narration describes the method by which the unidentified serial killer chooses, shadows and approaches one of his victims, a sales clerk at an office supply and electronics store. It was difficult to overcome feelings of paranoia after reading those passages. Could you take us --- particularly those of our readers who are aspiring writers --- through the process, step-by-step, of how you brought those sentences to life?
JL: I chose one of the most unlikely hunting territories imaginable --- the orderly aisles of an office supply store. The moment that sometimes occurs between prey and predator --- when both understand and accept the inevitable --- happens here, not in the wild but among printers and copiers. I think that incongruity is what raises the hair on the back of the reader’s neck.
BRC: I occasionally like to write down short quotations when I read, and URGE TO KILL had one. It concerned --- and I won’t give it away entirely --- the manner in which women move through the world of chance. It is a fabulous line, one of the best in this or any book. What inspired that quotation?
JL:  Thank you. I suppose I was inspired by observing beautiful women. Virtually all women are, in ways subtle and not so subtle, sexual prey all the time; in a sense, everything they do is a risk because it can be misread. Or they can simply make the wrong choice: should I leave the party with this guy or that one? So they move through the world increasingly learning to recognize the most acceptable risks. They do this so frequently that it becomes automatic, a state of mind.
BRC: What is it about writing serial murder fiction that attracts you as a writer? And why do you think it attracts readers?
JL: There is a dramatic arc in an actual successful serial killer investigation, a battle of wits between good and evil, order and chaos, in a contest of ever more frequent and escalating violence. I think that within that structure there are myriad tales to be told. Similarity to the real thing is what gives these books a built-in plausibility. We know there are such monsters out there. Often they choose victims randomly, which means that anyone might be a victim, any reader. That means a good, safe scare for the reader.
BRC: The Quinn series, particularly URGE TO KILL, seems perfect for television, perhaps as a program that would deal with each book in a series of story arcs. If you had the power to do so, who would you cast in the roles of Quinn, Pearl and Fedderman?
JL: I couldn’t agree with you more. Gene Hackman would make a good Quinn. Julia Louis-Dreyfus could be Pearl. Stephen Tobolowsky would be my choice for Fedderman. Let’s green light this project.
BRC: When you started writing in the late 1960s there were no personal computers, no personally accessible Internet, no word processing software. What do you consider to be the most significant technical innovation for authors since 1970?
JL: Gotta be the word processor/computer. It took much of the drone work out of writing, and made it possible for more writers to develop faster.
BRC: You have written a significant number of short stories, and continue to practice in the medium, though you have been more focused on novels lately. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing short stories as opposed to novels? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
JL: It’s no secret that it is more difficult to write a good short story than a good novel. So a challenge: To write a book that is as good as a good short story, only longer.
BRC: An author recently told me that one of the greatest innovations of the 20th century was the mass market paperback book. What is your opinion?
JL: I agree. I think most writers want as many people as possible to read their work. MMPB makes that possible.
BRC: You are well into your fifth decade of writing. What is your favorite part of the act of writing? And what is your least favorite part?

JL: I greatly enjoy the actual process of writing --- composing. I also enjoy revising --- the working of the clay to get things just right. When I get tired of one procedure, the other is my favorite.
BRC: In addition to writing fiction in multiple genres, including science fiction and just about every mystery sub-genre imaginable, you have also written a number of articles concerning the art of writing. What is the best advice you can give to a prospective author?

JL: Write. As in learning to dance or drive a race car, there is no substitute for doing it.
BRC: On a related note, if you could relive your career, is there anything you would have done differently? And is there anything in particular that you now regard as the smartest move you made?
JL:  There’s no point in second guessing moves that seemed right at the time. And I don’t recall anything disastrous that grew out of a wrong decision.
My smartest move was the same as that of many writers: choosing to write instead of doing something more traditional. I have never regretted my choice.
BRC: What have you read in the past six months --- whether it be fiction of any genre, or nonfiction --- that you would recommend to our readers?
JL: I enjoyed OLIVE KITTERIDGE. It deserved the Pulitzer Prize. I also recommend the vintage Harry Kemelman Rabbi novels.
BRC: I thoroughly enjoyed the team of New York Police Detective Sal Vitali and Harold Mishkin. Do you have any plans to feature them in a more prominent role in a forthcoming novel? What can you tell us about your next book?
JL: It will be a serial killer novel. And Sal and Harold do play expanded roles. I like both characters and the chemistry between them, so it’s a sure thing that they’ll be around more from now on. Nothing like having the writer on your side if you’re a character in a book.

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