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Interview: November 1, 2013

John Lutz is a multiple Edgar and Shamus Award winner, including the recipient of the Shamus Lifetime Achievement Award, and the author of over 40 books. His latest novel, TWIST, is the eighth installment in his series featuring decorated ex-cop and former homicide detective Frank Quinn. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Lutz talks about getting into his serial killer’s head --- including what drives the murderer to that level of madness --- as well as how he knows so much about police investigative procedures. He also discusses how he crafted the shocking ending of TWIST, where readers can find SWITCH (a Quinn novella released in 2012 as an eBook exclusive) and what he’s working on next. TWIST, your latest novel in the Frank Quinn series, is my favorite one thus far. There is no particular mystery here --- we learn pretty much from the get-go who is doing what and to whom --- as the story focuses on a hunt for a very effective serial killer named Dred Gant, who is killing women of a certain type in an extremely violent manner. One of the more memorable aspects of the killings for me is the Statue of Liberty souvenir that Gant leaves at the scene of each murder, thus earning him the nickname “the Lady Liberty Killer.” How did it occur to you to use that particular souvenir --- one of the best known in the world --- as a calling card for the killer?

John Lutz: I wanted the killer to recall his mother as larger than life --- and here was a large woman dominating a small island. The Statue of Liberty is an iconic figure most of us sort of take for granted. But in her way, she’s one of the most important women in our lives. I thought making her part of the novel would increase its impact.

BRC: Another standout element of the book is Gant’s origin. It is quite clear that even from the moment of Gant’s birth --- in the back of a van in an isolated area of Missouri --- he was destined for a bad life and a worse end. You’ve had some interesting (if that’s the right word) killers in your books before, but you certainly raise the bar with Gant, at least as far as his origin is concerned. Can you walk us through the process of how you developed this character?

JL: You’re right. I wanted to raise the bar. This is a killer who thinks big. Which means Quinn has to think bigger. Even a serial killer --- maybe especially a serial killer --- is defined by the nature of his victims, who have, knowingly or not, reinforced and triggered his motivation. 

No one knows exactly what makes a serial killer. The one thing they all seem to have in common is a miserable childhood. As with most of us, they are shaped early in life by a mother or father --- or both. The more outrageous the early home life, the more likely it is that outrageous behavior later in life will seem, to the killer, normal behavior. The so-called normal behavior in this case is grisly and deadly. Lady Liberty occupies this killer’s dreams, and he is moved by madness. To him, his motives seem huge, and his ambitions justified.

BRC: TWIST introduces a new character in the form of the very capable Carlie Clark, Quinn’s niece from California. Her visit to New York soon leads her to becoming involved --- and dangerously so --- in Quinn’s hunt for the Lady Liberty Killer. Will we be seeing more of Carlie in future Quinn novels, or will she be heading back to the west coast? And do any other members of the Q & A team have relatives, benevolent or otherwise, waiting in the wings?

JL: I wouldn’t say never. It is nice to have these relatives waiting in the wings. Probably a good idea for most of them to stay there. On the other hand, there might be relatives Quinn hasn’t yet met.

BRC: One of the attractions of the series is that Quinn’s Q & A team uses straightforward, old-school investigative methods to get the job done. They knock on doors, question everybody and keep digging until every stone and obstacle are overturned. Do you have anyone in particular in the private investigation industry with whom you might occasionally consult as a backstop on the accuracy of the procedures you portray in your novels?

JL: I have contacts who are cops, and when I was young worked as a civilian employee of a police department. This was long enough ago that some of the basic methods you touched on were very much in practice. And in a way, basic police work hasn’t changed much, even if some of the legwork is done electronically. The psychology remains the same.

BRC: Quinn and Pearl briefly leave the geographical comfort zone (if you can call it that) of New York. Will Q & A be traveling outside of NY to any great extent in future installments of the series, or will things stick pretty much close to home?

JL: I think there might be more travel, and some cases that have larger than national implications. But I regard New York City as one of the series’ essential characters.

BRC: This is a novel of dark secrets and darker acts. Yet, it is occasionally cut through with humor, grim and otherwise. Do you ever find yourself injecting more humor --- or more violence --- into a narrative than you might otherwise have intended?

JL: Yes, while writing I sometimes get quite taken with me.

BRC: Dred Gant presents himself as an antiques dealer for occupational cover. Do you have any interest in antiques? If so, what is your primary area of interest?

JL: I do like antiques, but don’t collect anything in particular other than books. They aren’t necessarily valuable books --- simply books that for whatever reason interest me. Old books, like some other antiques, are sometimes improved by time.

BRC: You live in St. Louis and Sarasota, but the series is set almost entirely in New York. How do you keep your settings accurate and sharp? Do you travel frequently to NY during the course of writing each Quinn book?

JL: I do get to New York a few times a year. I’ve always liked the city and from my first moment there felt at home. Maybe it was all those Nero Wolfe novels.

BRC: The conclusion --- and the events leading up to it --- was one of the best I’ve read this year. It literally had me on the edge of my seat. Was it difficult to write, or did it just seem to flow naturally for you?

JL: Thanks for the great review. I revise a lot, and keep working until it seems to have flowed from me naturally.

BRC: The narrative contains a brief but heartfelt tribute to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. You and Parker were contemporaries, and obviously you were --- and are --- a fan of the man’s work. Did you ever have the opportunity to meet him?

JL: You’re right, I am a Parker fan. I met him a few times, but never for more than a handshake.

BRC: Almost all great writers are also great readers. What have you read in the last six months that you would recommend?

JL: THE COLLABORATORS, a nonfiction work about the relationship between Hollywood and the Nazis in the ‘20s and ‘30s. A HIGHER CALL, about an interesting incident concerning a German ace and a U.S. bomber crew in WWII. And NEVER GO BACK, a Lee Child thriller.

BRC: You published SWITCH, a Quinn novella, in 2012 exclusively in eBook format. Do you have any future plans for a similar project? And will we be seeing SWITCH in print --- perhaps coupled with a full-length Quinn novel --- in the near future?

JL: Yes. SWITCH is slated to be an addendum to FRENZY (print edition only) in 2014. A readers’ bonus.

BRC: Your next novel in the series is tentatively titled BEAUTY. Is that book finished? Are you working on anything else? And will we continue to see more books in the Quinn series for the foreseeable future?

JL: BEAUTY has been retitled FRENZY, and the book is almost finished. I am tinkering at the edges of a Quinn novel beyond FRENZY.