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Interview: October 22, 2010

Suspense/thriller author extraordinaire John Lutz is back with yet another spine-tingling installment to his Frank Quinn series, MISTER X, which follows the eminent ex-homicide detective as he tries to stop a cold-blooded serial killer once and for all. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Lutz reveals his strategies for coming up with unforeseen tipping points and attention-grabbing opening paragraphs, giving the scoop on how he managed to create Nift, the disturbing and creepily compelling coroner. He also speculates on the motives behind a serial killer’s bloodlust, shares a few of his favorite authors, and unveils his plans for the rest of the series. The opening paragraph of MISTER X, your latest Frank Quinn novel, is one of my favorites from any book published this year. There’s one sentence that instantly grabs the reader’s attention, shifting what is occurring at the beginning of the sentence to a totally different place by the end of it. It also sets up the rest of the book, which concerns a series of unsolved murders that have been consigned to the cold-case file and are revived when the killer, known as the Carver, seemingly returns to claim more victims. Do you have a file of opening paragraphs that are waiting for novels, or do you start fresh --- literally --- with each book?

John Lutz: I start fresh with each book, but a file of opening paragraphs isn’t a bad idea.

BRC: One of the characters puts forth the proposition that some serial killers become sated --- they perform a certain number of murders and get the urge to kill out of their system, so to speak. This goes against the conventional wisdom, which holds that the more murders a serial killer commits, the more intense his blood lust becomes, so he must therefore increase the frequency of his killings. Which school of thought do you think is true? And is it possible that some, for whatever reason, are actually able to forsake the urge to kill?

JL: I think, along with the FBI, that there are many serial killers operating beneath the radar. Some of them don’t get caught and simply kill for such a long period of time that their age lessens their vulnerability to their compulsion…as does their secret desire to be caught. It’s not a pleasant thought, but like so much of criminal activity, serial murder seems to be a young man’s game.

BRC: It is tough for me to admit it, but Nift, the medical examiner, is my favorite character in the Quinn series. It was good to see him return in MISTER X, even under the worst of circumstances. It is not his personality, which is reprehensible, but his dark and inappropriate humor that wins me over. He seems a little too true-to-life to have been created out of your imagination. Is he based on someone you know?

JL: Fortunately, Nift isn’t based on a real person. I wanted him to be like a serial killer, but without the compulsion. He’s satisfied with being perhaps more intimate with the victims than the killer’s been, and he’s found a way to exercise his sadism and twisted sex drive risk-free. There are hints of necrophilia here, but we don’t know for sure.

BRC: Norton Nyler was another minor character who I really enjoyed. Nyler is an NYPD detective, but first and foremost a computer geek (and I use that term with utmost admiration). He doesn’t break the case open, but he ultimately sets in motion the chain reaction that leads to the story’s violent climax. Will we be seeing more of Nyler in the future, perhaps as a regular member of Quinn & Associates?

JL: Not Nyler, but a more interesting character (I hope) will fill the roll of computer geek --- and I also use the term with the utmost admiration.

BRC: Three-quarters of the way into the book, there are still many mysteries to be resolved, but careful readers could possibly be close to reaching some conclusions as to who has been doing what to whom, as the limerick goes. Then, in the final 100 pages, you not only upset the apple cart, but you also send it careening down several flights of stairs, all the way to the end of the book. Which came first when you started writing MISTER X: the beginning, middle or conclusion? Had you planned to set up a number of major tipping points for the conclusion, or did you find them coming to you as you were putting the finishing touches on it?

JL: I synopsize a book before I begin to write, but there is some deviation. I do know the ending and some of the major tipping points, but I also take advantage of opportunities as they appear. So I have a deliberately vague map, with the ending as a kind of magnetic North.

BRC: The chemistry between the characters, particularly the principals in Quinn & Associates, is one of the major elements that distinguishes the Quinn series from others of its genre. There is, of course, the subtle undercurrent in the off-again, still off-again relationship between Quinn and Pearl Kasner; the rough-tongued back-and-forth between Pearl and Larry Fedderman; and, of course, the subtle and unresolved antagonism between Quinn and his former boss, NYPD Police Commissioner Harley Renz. In MISTER X, you ratchet things up a notch or two when Pearl becomes engaged to be married, but not to Quinn. How did you come to decide that Pearl should step out a bit?

JL: It’s always seemed to me that romantic attachments in series books need something to prevent them from becoming static. And, let’s face it, Pearl is the type who might step out a bit. Despite her practical and hard-bitten approach to life, she’s a romantic and attracted to a certain type of man who isn’t good for her.

BRC: Where will we see your characters in the series going in the future? Is there some romantic tension between Pearl and Larry that is an undercurrent to their constant sniping? Is Quinn going to find new love of his own? And will Quinn’s edgy relationship with Renz ever come to a head?

JL: That’s a wonderful series of questions. It sounds like the teaser at the end of an old radio drama. There will be more serial killer investigations, as Quinn’s success breeds success. As for answers to the other questions: Maybe, maybe, maybe.

BRC: If there is a weakness in MISTER X, it is that the mismatched, but perfectly paired, team of Vitali and Mishkin are underutilized. Have you ever considered giving them a book of their own, or even a series?

JL: Not a book or series of their own, but they will play a larger part in future Quinn books.

BRC: To paraphrase a well-known truism, there are eight million stories in New York City, and MISTER X was one of them. Have you ever considered taking Quinn & Associates out of New York for a case, and removing Quinn, Pearl and Fedderman from their comfort zone to, say, a rural setting?

JL: That might happen within a larger context, but the books will remain New York novels.

BRC: On a related note, I understand that you are currently working on the next Quinn novel. Do you plan for the series to be open-ended at this point, or do you see a definite end to it at some indeterminate point in the future?

JL: I really don’t see an end at this point. I think there are myriad stories to be told within the framework of a serial killer investigation. I enjoy mining this particular literary ore.

BRC: And speaking of open-ended, MISTER X has a definite ending, but it concludes on a somewhat enigmatic and frightening note. Do you have a sequel planned? Or are you content to let the subtle threat implied at the end to simply and quietly hang out there, like a sharp edge in a dark room?

JL: I’ll let it hang out there like a sharp edge in a dark room, for now.

BRC: One of the subjects of great interest to our readers concerns what their favorite authors are reading. So I will ask you: What have you read in the past year that you would recommend to our readers? Why?

JL: I’ve been reading or re-reading older books by authors like Eric Ambler, Ross Macdonald, Donald Westlake and Patricia Highsmith. And everyone who likes thrillers should read Geoffrey Household’s ROGUE MALE.

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