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Interview: July 12, 2012

PULSE, the newest installment in John Lutz's Frank Quinn series, follows the former NYPD homicide detective as he tries to track down an infamous serial killer (or perhaps a copycat killer) whose signature depravity begins to reappear all over New York City after 10 years of inactivity. In this interview, conducted by's Joe Hartlaub, Lutz discusses his inspiration for the murderer, why imaginary serial killers are more interesting than the real ones, and whether or not some serial killers are beyond the reach of the justice system. PULSE lays out a complex mystery involving a small but wealthy college campus and a prime piece of New York real estate, reveals a new and unfortunate facet of the personality of Harley Renz, and introduces a new wrinkle into the relationship between Frank Quinn and Pearl Kasner. That doesn’t come close to covering everything that occurs here. Which plot point came first? And how did you keep all of these plates spinning at once?

John Lutz: I think the analogy of writing a multiple viewpoint novel and keeping plates spinning is right on target. Never stand still, never stand still. As for plot points, the hurricane would be the first, when Daniel Danielle turns the tables on his captors. He was borne, then he was free.

BRC: The book introduces Daniel Danielle, a killer who is attracted to a “type” of woman who he then mutilates and kills in a methodical and horrific manner. I kept asking myself, “How does he think of this stuff?!” So how do you think of these things? Have there been similar murders of the type described here? If so, was the killer ever caught?

JL: Years ago, as a civilian employee for a large police department, I read many of the rape case initial reports and was amazed at the violence and damage --- physical and otherwise --- that was inflicted in some stranger-on-stranger rapes and/or rape-murders. Most of what I’ve written about hasn’t to my knowledge happened. Some has.

BRC: Something happens to Daniel while en route to a maximum security prison in Florida. Ten years later, Daniel --- or someone very much like him --- begins to commit identical murders throughout New York City. The victims all bear a startling resemblance to Pearl, Quinn’s love interest and fellow investigator at Quinn & Associates. The idea of killers stopping activity and then picking up again later, or in a different area, has always frightened and fascinated me. What “real world” serial killer case do you find most intriguing?

JL: I think fictional serial killers are more interesting than their real life counterparts. Real serial killers move unsuspected among us by being as bland and unnoticeable as possible. Lunch with them would be a bore (not like with Hannibal Lector). Ted Bundy was an exception, personable and glib, inspiring trust even while he was leading his victims to their destruction. That he wore a cast on his arm to make him appear less likely to do harm, and then used that cast as a weapon, says a lot about him. More typical examples would be John Wayne Gacey and the BTK Killer. One a middle aged, civic minded guy who worked part time as a clown at children’s parties; the other a guy whose moniker makes him sound like a sandwich. Real serial killers seem to be interesting in the contrast between the two very different lives they lead, but other than that --- not much.

BRC: We are also introduced to Jody Jason, a character out of Pearl’s past who is an integral part of the plot. Was Jody someone you have been waiting to bring on for a while, or did you only recently conceive of her?

JL: Only recently. Fictional characters are always more interesting if they have challenges, if life-changing events sort of drop on them without warning. Those who follow Pearl know that she already has more than enough problems, yet here is another. I think most readers can identify with that.

BRC: The epilogue is as chilling an ending as you have ever written. Do you suspect that any of the more notorious serial murderers --- the Zodiac killer, for example --- are beyond the reach of American justice?

JL: I suspect there are some, especially if they aren’t notorious. So called “organized” serial killers are usually intelligent. If they do become known to the law, they might be only strongly suspected. More likely, there are serial killers out there who aren’t known to the law. The FBI is aware of some “travelers” who move around the country, or perhaps the world, as they commit their murders, making it difficult for the law to detect patterns. They are like the God particle, unseen but known to exist because of their effect.

BRC: Your novels deal primarily, though not exclusively, with serial killers. What is it about them that fascinates the American public? Why are they of such interest to thriller readers?

JL: I think readers are interested in serial killers because they are monsters that do exist. They are real. And they kill randomly, for their own unfathomable reasons, so any woman (almost always the killers are men, their victims women) might, for no reason she could even guess, become a victim. I believe it’s the randomness that draws readers; we have no idea why these people kill.

BRC: We often hear about the proliferation of television series that deal with forensic crime investigation and how these programs have enabled murderers and the like to become educated in the ways and means of investigation and thus harder to catch. What say you? Have these shows made a difference, one way or the other?

JL: Oh, maybe. But what’s more unshakeable evidence in the minds of a jury? An attorney and some scientists talking about DNA and displaying a lot of charts with a lot of numbers representing odds? Or a fingerprint found at the scene of the crime that, when laid over the defendant’s print, matches it precisely? The more things change…

BRC: Let’s put you in charge of things for a day. What one law would you implement, or change, to make it easier for law enforcement in the United States to apprehend serial killers such as Daniel Danielle?

JL: I don’t think the answer is necessarily a new law. Computers and data bases need to be developed (and are being developed) so that information is accumulated and synthesized so that similar crimes, no matter where they are committed, can be ferreted out of the cyber flood of information and evaluated by law enforcement agencies. There might not be such a thing as perfect randomness, but it takes a tricky computer program, or a cop with intuition, to discern the patterns.

BRC: While your Quinn & Associates, or Q & A books, may be your most popular series, you have written a number of others as well, such as the Alo Nudger and Fred Carver series. Have you ever been tempted to go back and revisit those characters, or perhaps incorporate them into the Quinn canon?

JL:No temptation there. I might do a short story now and then featuring Carver or Nudger, but that’s about it. It strikes me that while spinning off characters works pretty well for some writers, mixing and matching from other series, especially when a lot of time has passed, wouldn’t be so effective.

BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you feel would be worthy of recommendation to our readers?

JL: John Sandford’s STOLEN PREY

Thomas H. Cook’s THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR, which I missed first time around when it won an Edgar.

Jonathan Kellerman’s VICTIMS.

Ruth Rendell’s PORTOBELLO.

Peter Robinson’s BEFORE THE POISON.

Harlan Coben’s CAUGHT.

John Lescroart’s A PLAGUE OF SECRETS.

BRC: You leave a couple of plot lines open at the end of the book, which I assume means that we will be seeing more of Frank Quinn and company in your next novel. What can you tell us about it? Will we see additional skeletons coming out of the closet of any of your cast of characters? And will Jody be back?

JL: There will be another Frank Quinn book. It will involve a serial killer. Jody will be in it. That’s all I’m going to reveal, or else it wouldn’t be a mystery.