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Interview: November 12, 2010

Retired Sergeant Rick Reed is reminding readers to shut their windows and secure their doors with his chilling debut novel, THE CRUELEST CUT, which follows Detective Jack Murphy as he tries to stop a cold-blooded and sadistic killer, who’s been leaving fragmented Mother Goose rhymes next to the bodies of his brutally murdered victims. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Reed talks about his former life as a police officer, elaborating on the dynamics between real-life detectives and the experiences that led him to join the force in the first place. He also speculates on the nature of serial killers --- and why the world will never be without them --- shares a few of his favorite authors, and sheds light on his plans for Jack’s future. I really enjoyed the Prologue to THE CRUELEST CUT, your debut novel. It depicts a SWAT team mission that quickly goes bottoms-up after one small mistake sets off a chain reaction, ultimately influencing other events that take place throughout the book. Given your background as a police detective, did this mission really unfold in the manner described, or was it something you based on an incident that almost occurred but ended for the better?

Rick Reed: While that exact event never occurred, there were several isolated events that did occur and inspired me to write that scene. I was a hostage/crisis negotiator for the last nine years of my career, and I saw some humorous scenes play out because of a lack of communication between management and the ground troops. In one case, officers and SWAT surrounded a house for six hours and evacuated part of the neighborhood because of a report that an armed man was "holed up" inside. The stand-off finally ended when the man came up to one of the officers and asked if he could go back home --- he had been standing in the crowd of onlookers the entire time.

BRC: THE CRUELEST CUT has a succession of murders that appear to be random, but are in fact part of a plot for revenge directed at a police detective named Jack Murphy. Given your own experience with serial killers, do you believe there is one primary element that they all share? Are such people beyond rehabilitation and/or redemption? And if there was one thing you could do to reduce or remove the threat of serial killers from society, what would it be?

RR: I believe that people who commit violent crimes share one central element, and that is anger. Believe it or not, we are fortunate that anger is the trigger, because anger can change to some other non-violent form of expression; it’s an emotion that’s hard to maintain for long periods of time. Of course, I have only had close dealings with one serial killer, but I spent several years interviewing him. In his case, he would fantasize about the murder, but in order to commit it, he had to make himself angry at the victim before striking --- it was easier for him to justify their deaths because of something they did, or because of the type of person they were.

Are these people beyond redemption? I would have to say, yes. To gain the status of "serial killer," a person has to kill several people in unrelated incidents that occur over a period of time: A guy who lets loose with an assault rifle in a crowded mall doesn't qualify as a serial killer, and acts committed during a time of war may not qualify a person as a serial killer. These people are not insane. They may be mentally ill by the standards we use to judge those things, but they are not crazy; they know exactly what they are doing, they plan in great detail or at least to some degree, and then they consciously carry out the destruction of a human life. I've seen people die and, believe me, it's not something your average Joe would want to watch.

In the case of Joseph Weldon Brown from my book BLOOD TRAIL, most of his 14 victims were prostitutes and/or hitchhikers who he didn’t see as “real” people. All were women; all were beaten, raped and strangled --- and some were even raped after death. All were then discarded in dumpsters, fields, or alongside roads like garbage. Each killing and each disposal of the body was thought-out and deliberate.

I don't think the threat of serial killers can be removed from society. Science is looking at brain scans to determine the mind’s “propensity of violence,” and maybe one day they will be able to test for this. But what they can't test for is the conscious choice we all were given by our maker.

Joseph Weldon Brown is doing life without the possibility of parole for his crimes. He will never get out of prison, and in fact, has tried to kill several other prisoners since being incarcerated. He stated in open court during his sentencing that "I don't think I should ever get out [of prison]. If I got out, I would kill again."

BRC: While there are several extremely interesting characters --- both good and bad --- featured throughout THE CRUELEST CUT, the most prominent one is obviously Jack Murphy. Is Murphy modeled after anyone in particular, or did you create him as a composite of several different people?

RR: I would let Jack Murphy answer this one, but he doesn't like talking to the media, so I'll answer for him.

Jack Murphy is the kind of cop I would want to be if I didn't have to worry about the little things --- like keeping my job, being charged with a crime, or having to worry about going too far out on a limb. He is the kind of man that most men would want to be; although we share a lot of the same qualities, I'm better looking, and he's way cooler. The things that hide in your closet at night are not there to scare you: they’re there because they’re hiding from Jack Murphy.

BRC: I really enjoyed the camaraderie between Jack Murphy and Liddell Blanchard. The give-and-take between two police partners is a staple of all crime fiction, regardless of media; yet I thought that, given Murphy's tendency toward seriousness and Liddell's tendency toward sarcasm, the relationship you developed between the two men was particularly unique. Do real-world policemen actually get along as well as they generally do in fiction? Do partners sometimes find they are not a good fit for each other? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

RR: When I was a detective, we used to have a saying: "Beware all who enter here: Leave your feelings at the door." Inside the detective squad room, nothing was off limits, and if you had a thin skin, you needed to wear body armor or find a different profession. If your buddies found out about something that bothered you, it would become the mantra of the day.

But all that being said, being behind those closed doors was the best time of my life. These were the toughest guys you would ever meet, but they were also the most humane folks on earth. Of course, you must remember that I write serial killer fiction…

The connection between Jack Murphy and Liddell Blanchard is as close as I can get to how things really were, though. Their distrust and disgust concerning Detective Larry Jansen, as well as their views on politics, are very realistic.

BRC: The relationships in Murphy’s personal life are also quite intriguing. He is involved with a parole officer, as well as a woman who is quite different from his ex-wife --- a grade school teacher. He has strong feelings for both of them, and yet there’s also a strong bond of friendship between the two women. Things are a bit up in the air, to say the least, by the end of the book. Do you know how things will resolve themselves down the road? Or at this point, are you as puzzled by everything as Murphy is?

RR: You will have to read the next book to get the scoop on Jack's love life. But I can tell you that Jack is a realist, and he knows that his lifestyle "is what it is." I think my readers will approve of how things turn out.

BRC: Your first book, BLOOD TRAIL, detailed a real-world hunt for a serial killer that you were actually involved with, while THE CRUELEST CUT is a work of fiction concerning a set of serial murders that are directed at a police detective. Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of writing in each genre?

RR: I didn't set out to be a true crime writer, but the opportunity to write BLOOD TRAIL presented itself, and that was that. Writing true crime is very restrictive because you have a set of facts to work with, and you have to stay within those confines. In one way it is easier because the story is already written for you, but at the same time, it’s difficult to turn a set of facts into interesting writing. I will defer to true crime writers like M. William Phelps (who, by the way, is a consultant on “Dexter”) and Steven Walker to keep turning out gang-buster true crime books.

As for fiction, having the freedom to create your facts, to design characters, and to allow them to play out their parts is something that I find very exciting. Unlike true crime, with fiction, if you don't like a scene you just change it. For me, that freedom may have been a dangerous thing, as it allowed my mind to roam freely. Most of my friends are surprised that I write serial-killer fiction books because they don't see that side of me. The other great thing about writing fiction is that, sometimes, my characters can surprise me: I give them free rein in a scene, and it doesn't always turn out the way I think it's going to. (Laughs) I'm sure there is a psychological term for that. I remember finishing a writing session one day and getting together with my girlfriend shortly afterward. I told her, "I can't believe it. I had to kill him!" She thought I had really killed someone, when in fact I was talking about a character in the story who died. Needless to say, she is not my girlfriend anymore.

BRC: You worked as a police detective --- and in other areas of law enforcement as well --- for over 20 years before leaving to take a teaching position and start a writing career. What attracted you to police work to begin with, and why did you leave law enforcement? And if you were to stop teaching and writing for a living, what would you see yourself doing?

RR: My two older brothers were eight and nine years older than me. Both went into the military, so I went into the military. When they came home, both joined the police force, and I followed their lead once again. But I have to admit that, even as a youngster, I was always fascinated by detectives, gumshoes and shamuses. I was mesmerized by tales of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, etc. I didn't really want to be a policeman; I wanted to be a detective. For me, the excitement came from being able to piece together a set of events that I didn't actually witness. I must admit, I had a very exciting and successful career, and I loved every minute of it --- the good and the bad.

I left law enforcement for almost the same reasons that I was attracted to it. The job was exciting, but it left you with nightmares, other people’s pain, high blood pressure, and a sense of not belonging to the very community that you were protecting. I also spent my last three years on the job as the commander of Internal Affairs, and that was reason enough to retire right there.

If I stopped teaching, I would probably write full time and travel extensively. If I had to stop teaching and writing, I would drink Scotch extensively and travel. But that will never happen. I promise you, there will be many more Jack Murphy books coming down the pike.

BRC: Given your own experience as a detective, what do you think is the most important technological development that’s been utilized in the apprehension of murderers over the past five years?

RR: Television. Most certainly “America's Most Wanted” and possibly “CSI,” even though it is so unreal at times that it makes me laugh. Those types of programs have reached the American public in a way that even science is incapable of doing. For example, when I was in the police department’s Bunco-Fraud Unit (for white-collar crime), we would send out alerts to all of our local businesses and banks, so we could warn them of current schemes. We started doing this with a fax machine. It would take an entire shift to send out one alert, and the photos of the bad guys were horrible. Then e-mail came along, and it took about five minutes to send the same alerts. Then we realized we could warn everyone by putting this on television and enlisting the help of the public. It’s amazing how things change.

When the serial killer from my book BLOOD TRAIL was running from me, I put him on television, and within an hour I knew which direction he was going in and what he was driving. DNA is a good tool, but it will never replace good old-fashioned detective work.

BRC: Considering all of the disparate elements that come into play during the course of a criminal investigation, what do you consider to be the most difficult case you were involved with during the course of your law enforcement career?

RR: I worked a cold case murder (from 1973) that was over 30 years old when it was assigned to me. The case involved the murder of a high-school student who was shot to death, and one of the suspects in the case was a current high-ranking member of my police department. Politics became involved in an ugly way, and I was cut off from the resources of the department and unable to work the case like a typical murder case. Fortunately, I had a very honest police chief who protected me as much as possible during the investigation. The end result was that I proved that the high-ranking officer was not the killer, but the political interference left the public with a bad taste in the mouth, and suspicion that the case was white-washed by the police department (and me). The good ending --- the Mayor lost the next election and things went pretty much back to normal. I was promoted to Sergeant and transferred to Internal Affairs.

BRC: A number of our readers are aspiring authors themselves. As the published author of two books, is there anything you wish you had done differently when you started pursuing your writing career? And is there anything in particular that you are happy you did?

RR: The only thing I can think of is that I wish I had joined the Mystery Writers of America sooner. Also, the International Thriller Writers (ITW). Both of these organizations provide writers with tremendous help and guidance, whether they’re new or old.

I have a fantastic editor, Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Books. And I can tell you from experience that if you have an editor, you should listen to them. There are times when I get so engrossed in the writing process that I forget who I'm writing for, and my editor has always been there for me with advice and a gentle nudge in the right direction. (Actually her nickname is the Duchess of Darkness. I'll leave you to ponder that one…)

For me, writing is not about the money; it’s about the finished product. When I complete a book, I always ask myself, "If I die tomorrow, is this a book I would want to be remembered for?"

BRC: Given that you are engaged in more than one occupation, how did you go about mapping out a writing schedule? Did you have any difficulty sticking with it? And have you changed or modified it at all since you first started writing for a living?

RR: My boss at Ivy Tech College, Chris Keifer, has been very gracious in terms of working my classes around my writing schedule. I write every morning, seven days a week, for at least three hours. Then I teach five classes over a four-day period. In the evenings, I work on ideas and take notes. My schedule hasn't changed much over the last several years, except for the amount of travel that’s required of me now that I have two books out and a third on the way.

The only difficulty I've found is that it’s hard for me to write while I’m on the road at book events. In some cases, I will lose a day here and there, but in general, I'm up every morning hammering away at my Netbook. I still find time to work on other projects, including a play I just finished and submissions to some anthologies and contests. The play was submitted to the International Mystery Writers Festival in Owensboro, Kentucky for consideration at their June 2011 event.

BRC: What authors have influenced your writing style, as well as your choice of writing as a profession?

RR: Without hesitation, I have to name Nelson DeMille, John Sandford, John le Carré, Gregg Olsen, John Gilstrap, Shane Gericke, Tess Gerritsen, C.E. Lawrence, James Lee Burke, Alafair Burke, Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, John Lutz and Julie Kramer --- the list goes on and on. If I’ve left anyone out, it was not intentional.

BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would like to recommend to our readers?

RR: MISTER X by John Lutz, VICTIM SIX by Gregg Olsen, THE GATE HOUSE by Nelson DeMille, THE LION by Nelson Demille, 212 by Alafair Burke, ICE COLD by Tess Gerritsen, SILENCING SAM by Julie Kramer, 61 HOURS by Lee Child, and I can't wait to read TORN APART by Shane Gericke. That's as far as my memory goes.

BRC: I understand that you are working on the second Jack Murphy novel. What can you tell us about it? Do you plan to keep Murphy in Indiana in the immediate future? And which of your supporting characters will return?

RR: I'm almost finished with the second Jack Murphy novel, and I have almost completed a prequel to the series. The second novel will pick up shortly after the first novel, THE CRUELEST CUT, but it is a stand-alone novel as well. Most of the same characters will return, and a few new ones will be introduced. The killer, of course, will be new, because Jack needs a new playmate.

At this time, I don't see Jack straying too far from Indiana, but who knows? He plays bagpipes now, and he may decide to take a trip to Scotland. Jack is a magnet for trouble; wherever he goes, something bad is bound to follow. I will say that I am introducing a new female into Jack's life, who will be competing with Susan and Katie for his attention. You'll have to read the book to get the scoop.

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