Burning Down the House
The John Lutz Interview
Conducted by Kevin Burton Smith
John Lutz is no slouch. He's published over thirty-five novels and more than 250 short stories and articles, he's served as president of both the Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America, and has received the MWA Edgar Award, the PWA Shamus and Life Achievement awards, the Trophee 813 Award, and the Short Mystery Fiction Lifetime Achievement Golden Derringer Award. His novel SWF Seeks Same was made into the hit film Single White Female, his suspense novel The Ex became an HBO original movie, and he's created two of the most original and unique private eye heroes of the eighties and nineties: antacid-chewing worrywart Alo Nudger and take-no-prisoners hard guy Carver, and he's currently writing another series about a former NYPD detective turned freelance profiler Frank Quinn.
In fact, his series about Florida private eye Carver is one of the great lost series of all time, and has only now, twenty-five years later, resurfaced, this time as e-books, and as a long-time fan of this series, all I can say is that it's about time.
In a time when the genre was making its transition from a resloutely pale male domain to something a little more open and colorful and a little less downbeat, Carver was a hot, dark wind indeed, blowing across all that cool openess and tolerance, suggesting that all that glib kinder, gentler stuff was merely a facade and that something darker, meaner and nastier lay just below the surface. The titles alone were enough to make you sweat: Tropical Heat, Scorcher, Flame, Bloodfire, Spark, Torch, Burn... well, you get the idea.
It was even a significant change from Lutz' other series private eye of the time. Sure, people were hurt in the Alo series, as well, but there always seemed to be some hope offered as well; a sort of hard-won belief that, no matter how much shit hit the fan, that somehow compassion and understanding might, just might, save the day. It was the P.I. as a sort of Chaplinesque Everyman.
Not so in the Carver series. It was unrelenting in its ferocity and its portrayal of a bleak world of violence and betrayal. People got hurt in the Carver series, and hurt bad. Some of them, including major characters, were killed outright, and nobody was ever truly saved.
If Alo's philosophy was something along the lines of "People shouldn't do this kind of thing to each other," Craver's assessment was not so much a philosophy as a frank assessment: "People DO do this kind of thing to each other."
The ten Carver books were originally published over a ten-year span, from 1986-96, and although they were widely acclaimed, they never quite got the attention or the mass audience I think they deserved. Part of it might have been simply that most of the later novels never made it to paperback, but I suspect the books' smouldering bleakness might have had a little something to do with it.Perhaps they were a little too raw for their times, but in the summer of 2011, a time when, according to the Supreme Court, disembowelemt is considered suitable for children's entertainment, Open Road Media has re-released nine of the ten Carver books for the e-book market.
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THRILLING DETECTIVE: I guess the big question is: what took you so long to get these suckers back in print? How'd that come about?
JOHN LUTZ: I'm not sure why it took a while to get Carver back to market. By nature I try to look forward, which is maybe why I never really tried; he seemed part of a past when there were no cell phones and the IBM Selectric was high tech. I like it that Open Road Media is doing these novels set in the eighties, when they were written; that's what readers seem to want. Writers, too.
There seems to be a growing appetite for fresh editions of older series books, especially as ebooks. Open Road Media is doing my Frank Quinn series as ebooks as well; they and my agent got together and thought an electronic Carver might be a good idea. So there he is online. The sort of thing that would have surprised him in the eighties. (Like the fact that he could now get a pretty good artificial knee.)
Any thoughts on the e-book explosion? Do you have an e-reader?
I like your choice of words: "Explosion." The ebook revolution seems to be rapidly accelerating. I've had a nook for about a year and like it a lot, though I still read plenty of text-on-paper books. I think traditional books are going to be around for the foreseeable future, though I don't know in what form or for what market. Something like when TV was supposed to make radios and movie theaters disappear. Things adapt.
Are there any plans for re-releasing the Nudger books or some of your standalones digitally, or even in print?
Funny you should ask. Speaking Volumes has just re-published the Nudger series on line as e-books as well as in print formats. The books haven’t been online very long, but they should be popping up at all the usual places very soon.
For that matter, are there any out of print books by other authors you'd like to see out again in any format?
The thriller, which I would describe as a kind of suspense novel with velocity, is very popular now. When talking to other thriller writers (how I would describe myself in this phase of my career) and mentioning Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household, I provoke blank looks, especially on the faces of the annoyingly young. But it's a terrific thriller that was hugely successful and is to me the definitive thriller. I'd like to see it go around again. There should be a Geoffrey Household award.
The Carver series was great. Yet it never seemed to quite get the attention it deserved. Do you think it was too intense for the time? Since Carver last appeared, there's been a turn to darker, more violent fare in the genre, and the "noir" label is being slapped on everything that doesn't have a cat in it.
Thanks for the kind words. The series might have been too intense for the times, but who can say? Extreme violence wasn't in vogue back then. I don't think readers will find the books too intense now. Well, maybe -- certainly my Quinn novels are more intense. The books' readers -- mostly women, I'm sure -- don'
t seem to mind.
Incidentally, I noticed you used "slapped" and "cat" in the same sentence.
Uh-oh. I guess I should expect some more death threats now from the cozy brigade. Where do you see the Carver series falling in the greater body of your work?
I see the Carvers as among the best things I've done, Kiss certainly among my best novels.
You're still doing standalones and a series about Frank Quinn, an ex-cop who tracks down serial killers. Any plans to bring back either Carver or Nudger?
Not at this time. Of course, if there would be a groundswell of demand... But honestly? I do regard the Pinnacle NYC serial killer books as my very best work. The most complex and challenging.
Well, I see a P.I. novel as usually a linear tale, most often in first person, while the Quinns and standalones, (though the Quinns, while definitely thrillers, are also technically P.I. books), are multiple viewpoint novels, and feature transitions in time and place. Quinn’s expertise is in tracking serial killers whose motives are always (in my books, anyway) buried in a past that I think the reader likes to explore. Also, I think it’s best if the reader learns something about the victim before she (usually) meets her (usually) grisly (usually) fate. This makes for more complex, longer novels, that I find more challenging than most P.I. novels.
And so I do considerable research, most of it these days on the Internet, keeping in mind that the purpose of fact-finding is more to avoid mistakes than to gather a lot of extraneous knowledge that can be stuffed into a book. So I mostly do checking to make sure I got it right.
I don’t feel constricted by doing serial killer thrillers. I think there are myriad tales to be told within the serial killer investigation framework. And there is or can be a dramatic arc to real life serial killer investigations: The police and public become aware that a serial killer is operating; serial killers do kill with increasing frequency and viciousness; do have a moth-to flame relationship with their compulsion; do learn the identity of the lead detective and sometimes find themselves in a mano a mano situation; do get more and more sensational media attention, prompting more and more pressure to solve the crimes; and do have a compulsion to go out in a blaze of fame and glory when finally they are run to ground. Who all these people involved are, why they are involved, what happens to them personally along the way, and what the series of murders means, are all the stuff of good fiction. There is Still plenty of ore in that mine. I find something new to explore in each succeeding book, and actually think the new Quinn novel, Serial, really is the best work I’ve done.
It'sa thriller with some P.I. content, as Quinn and Associates Investigations (Q&A) become involved in a serial killer investigation at the behest of the New York City police commissioner, as well as for very personal reasons.
I've always seen your Carver books as a sort of balance to the Nudger series, sort of like the way Westlake's Parker series balanced his Dortmunder series. Where did Carver come from? At the time it seemed like it marked a shift in your work. At least to me...
Yep, it was a deliberate and partial shift. The Nudger series was doing well, and having lots of spare energy then, I wanted to do a second series. I thought it would be a good idea to create a detective that was just about the polar opposite of Nudger, working in a completely different setting. I think the annual change of pace helped to keep the work fresh.
I remember back in the nineties you were involved in writing some mystery jigsaw puzzles, which in these days of LA Noire makes you seem kind of prophetic. How did that come about?
I met Mary Ann Lombard at, I believe, an ABA where my publisher had a booth. She described a company she was trying to get off the ground that sold jigsaw puzzles whose images contained clues that would solve an enclosed mystery short story. She asked if I was interested. Turns out she was (is) a kind of marketing genius and the puzzles sold well. I recently learned that one of mine, Murder on the Titanic, has sold over 100,000 puzzles. Grounds for Murder, a coffee puzzle, is gaining on Titanic. Inexorably, with iceberg speed.
What's your writing schedule like these days?
After breakfast, sometimes at a coffee shop, I work for a few hours. If I'
m composing I'
ll write six to ten pages that I consider almost good enough. In the afternoon I'
ll revise them, and then take care of whatever incidental work has piled up while I was looking the other way. (Those aforementioned pages will be revised again, when the first draft is finished.)
You're not still using the Selectric, are you?
Oh, God, no. I use a computer, though like many writers who’ve been at it for a while, I do miss the typewriter; whether it’s manual or electric, the slower process and some physical effort seem to wed the writer to every letter of every word. That’s a nice feeling.
What are you working on?
I'm putting the finishing touches on the 2012 Frank Quinn NYC serial killer novel, as yet untitled. Also gearing up to help publicize the next Quinn novel Serial I mentioned. That will be published July 26th.
Still doing the Missouri/Florida shuffle?
Still at it. In MO at the moment, where it'
s just about as hot as FL.
Hey, I just came across a "John Lutz" in David Levien's 13 Million Dollar Pop! Coincidence?
Frank Quinn would tell you that there are no coincidences.
And since you're a baseball buff, answer me this: who killed the Montreal Expos?
Basically, they were playing baseball in a country where hockey is the national sport.
Really? Bobby Orr.
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