A Proper Crime Novel

By Katrina Niidas HolmMay 25, 2016

A Proper Crime Novel

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

THE NEW YORK TIMES best-selling author Lisa Lutz has written six novels about the sleuthing Spellman family, a standalone about a trio of friends called How To Start A Fire, and an illustrated children’s book called How To Negotiate Everything. Together with David Hayward, she co-authored Heads You Lose — a book that’s both a murder mystery and the tale of two exes collaborating to write said murder mystery. And it was recently announced that Lutz will be joining Megan Abbott, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and David Simon in the writers’ room for The Deuce, an upcoming HBO drama that follows the rise of the pornography industry in Times Square during the 1970s and 1980s.

Her latest novel, The Passenger, is an adrenaline-fueled thriller about a woman on the run from both the law and her own past. The protagonist of The Passenger, first introduced to readers as Tanya Dubois, changes her identity several times over the course of the book; underneath it all, though, she remains an inherently good person — one who cares too deeply and trusts too easily, despite having been let down by everyone she’s ever loved. Regardless of what name Tanya goes by or what color she dyes her hair, the essence of her character shines through — and the same might be said of Lutz. While she’s changed genres several times over the course of her career, each of her books bears her unique authorial fingerprints — namely, a sophisticated structure, realistically flawed characters, and Lutz’s razor-sharp wit.

Lutz was gracious enough to chat with me over email about all manner of things, from her process to genre labels to what sets The Passenger apart from her other novels.


KATRINA NIIDAS HOLM: I’ve seen you refer to The Passenger as your “first real crime novel,” but all of your books feature crime of some stripe. What distinguishes The Passenger in your mind?

LISA LUTZ: Genre labels have always been tricky for me. The only things I care about when I’m writing are keeping the reader engaged and offering a different point of view about the world we live in. When I wrote The Spellman Files, I thought I was just writing a comedic novel. I was using some tropes of the detective genre to propel the story, but there were no real crimes in the book. You could call it misdemeanor fiction. But when the book came out, it was embraced by the mystery/crime community, and I had no reason to resist that. My first standalone novel, Heads You Lose (co-authored with David Heywood[1]), used a conventional crime-novel structure, but only as the framework for the real action, which was the conflict between two co-authors fighting for control over the story. It was, as they say, very meta. Then I wrote How to Start a Fire, to which the infuriating label of “women’s fiction” was aggressively applied. Others might argue that it’s a crime novel because there’s a crime in it and the characters’ stories are presented as mysteries that you don’t quite solve until the end. But to me, it’s just a novel. It has some comedy and some crime. And some other stuff.

The Passenger, on the other hand, is way more straightforward. It begins with a woman leaving her dead husband at the base of the stairs and going on the lam. All sorts of criminal behavior ensue. The first paragraph of the book unambiguously lets the reader know what she’s in for. That said, a good crime novel isn’t just about crime and punishment. The Passenger also explores the meaning of identity and the question of how to find a place in the world when you’ve lost all tethers to it.

One of the things I appreciate most about The Passenger is that, unlike on television or in the movies, your protagonist isn’t able to pull new identities (with papers to match) out of thin air. Was that part of your concept going in? Or did researching this book change your idea of what kind of story this was going to be?

I can’t imagine writing about someone with a rarefied skill set — or, to be honest, even extraordinary dental hygiene. I’ve always defined myself as much by my flaws as my gifts (whatever the hell they are). And I’m more interested in the many ways even the best of us are mediocre than in any kind of mastery. Plus I’m certain that I would find the technical aspects of changing my identity very complicated and cumbersome (I’m deeply lazy, I should mention.) I was more interested in how someone could change her identity without any special tools or connections. This might have limited what the heroine could do, but it was exactly that limitation that helped drive the narrative into unconventional terrain.

Do you think you could pull off life on the lam? Now that you’re an expert, what advice would you give to those looking to flee their former lives?

I’m still not an expert, as I hope has become obvious. But even with my limitations, I think I could do better than most. Going on the run requires the ability to isolate, and I’m perhaps a little too good at that. But I’d rather not give away more. You know, just in case.

You’re a genius when it comes to structure. This is true on a micro level, as evidenced by the jokes and footnote humor that grace the pages of your Spellman books, but it’s also true on a macro level. From the murder-mystery-meets-epistolary-novel format of Heads You Lose, to the nonlinear narrative of How To Start A Fire, to the mystery-within-a-suspense-novel Russian nesting doll that is The Passenger, it’s clear you think a lot about not only what kind of story you want to tell, but the best way in which to tell it. Do you think this attention to structure has anything to do with the fact that you got your start as a screenwriter?

Thank you and yes, but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. For instance, I wrote The Spellman Files after years of only writing for film and feeling beholden to stringent screenwriting rules. So when I wrote my first novel, I felt like I had been uncaged. I didn’t know if there were rules for writing novels, and I didn’t give a shit. I believed that if I wrote a book that was engaging enough, I’d have done it right. When I look back at my first book, I’m amazed at how unschooled it is. It presents itself on some level as a detective novel, but there’s no dead body and the primary mystery doesn’t begin until halfway through the story. Forget about the unorthodox footnotes, there were transcripts in lieu of dialogue, flashbacks within flashbacks, lists and dossiers littering every chapter. It’s like a novel written by someone who has never read a novel before. That said, I’m still really proud of it and I think it works. Some days I miss that lunatic novice writer that I used to be.

You never seem to use the same structure twice; is that a conscious decision?

I spent 10 years writing and rewriting Plan B, a mob comedy. Then I spent another decade working on the Spellman novels. After so much time working within those confines, I just want to write the stories that I’m the most passionate about. My next book may have a crime in it, but it will be an entirely different kind of book from the ground up.

Do you spend a lot of time thinking about structure before you sit down at the keyboard?

It doesn’t seem like I’m spending a lot of time, but that could be because I enjoy that process. Whenever people ask me if I outline, I say that I make a rough or vague story arc. That usually means I pick up a large sketchpad and jot down character names and draw lines connecting them, along with some key plot points. It’s more like a diagram, map, or collage. I give it a linear frame only after I’ve gotten a visual sense of what I’m doing. After that, it becomes very intuitive and emotional. I see the story first and then I internalize it. I’m not sure if that makes sense.

Most writers pick a genre and stick with it, but you’re constantly changing things up. As someone who’s written books that have been described as comedies, mysteries, women’s fiction, and crime fiction, do genre labels mean anything to you? What are your thoughts on the publishing industry’s obsession with labels and categorization?

I hate labels and book comps. They ring false and are often insulting. I’m doggedly about doing my own thing, so being compared to anyone else is just infuriating. Recently, I was waiting on the phone to do a radio interview and heard the tail end of another interview with an author I won’t name (because I can’t — one of the many gifts of having a terrible memory). Anyway, the author was talking about his inspiration for writing his current novel and he mentioned reading another author’s book and thinking, “I’d like to write something like that.” That notion is beyond my comprehension. I read and love books all the time, and there are writers who have gifts that I covet. But I have never wanted to write a book like a book I had already read.

Do you give much thought to genre when you’re conceptualizing a book?

I generally don’t consider genre when I’m thinking about a story, but The Passenger is an exception to that rule. After years of being called a crime novelist, I thought I should write a proper crime novel.

The Passenger is probably the darkest thing you’ve written, but it’s still got moments of humor. What role do you think humor plays in your books? Do you think you could ever write a book that doesn’t feature any humor — and if you could, would you want to?

Even during the lowest points in my life someone can always make me laugh, if they know how. I’m not great with serious, meaningful conversations in an earnest tone. I don’t think that means I lack depth, it just means that my style of communication is looser. So the answer is no. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without humor, so why would I create one in a book?

Bonus question for your Spellman fans: Did you know you were done telling Izzy’s story before you’d written The Last Word? How do you look back on Izzy’s arc as a character? Are there things you’d change or of which you’re especially proud?

As I was nearing the end of the sixth Spellman book (which was not supposed to be the last), I suddenly realized I was done. I had told the story the best way I could and I gave my main character a proper send-off. I’m proud that I didn’t let the series go on beyond its expiration date. My only regret is that, in a couple of interviews, I left the door halfway open for a possible continuation with Rae at the helm. That would feel like a step backward now, and I feel like I have to keep moving ahead.


Katrina Niidas Holm reviews mysteries for Crimespree, Mystery Scene, and Publishers Weekly and is an editor at the River Heights Book Review.


[1]Name intentionally misspelled.

LARB Contributor

Katrina Niidas Holm reviews mysteries for Crimespree, Mystery Scene, and Publishers Weekly and is an editor at the River Heights Book Review.


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