Killer Lunch: Lorenzo Carcaterra, Tess Gerritsen, and Chris Pavone In Conversation

Three mystery authors discuss crime television, the banality of murder, and the surprising niceness of crime writers.

Sitting down with three mystery writers can be a daunting task. Together, these three have written more than 36 books, and myriad grizzly deaths. Lorenzo Carcaterra has written mystery novels, true crime, and has lent his pen to Law and Order. His latest book, The Wolf, pits organized crime against terrorism, in a feud that is both timely and ingenious. Tess Gerritsen, a retired physician, is the author of 25 novels, including the Rizzoli and Isles series. Die Again has the duo searching for a predatory killer at home in Boston and in the wilds of Botswana. Chris Pavone’s second book, The Accident, follows an anonymous manuscript, submitted to a New York literary agent, which has the power to destroy reputations, ruin companies, and claim lives.

These three writers came together to talk about their new books, the respectability of crime fiction, and how television influences their work (and how it doesn’t).

You’re all experienced authors, so no first timers here. Give me your bragging number.

Chris Pavone: Two books.

Tess Gerritsen: Twenty-five.

Lorenzo Carcaterra: Nine.

So you are Queen.

TG: It’s pure longevity. You get old enough and the books start to add up over the years.

I also know the dirty little secret that you three share, and that’s that you write books where people die in horrible terrible ways, and you are the nicest kind of writers. You are the happiest, most well adjusted. Why is that?

TG: We get our aggressions out. Your observation is absolutely right. I think that mystery writers and horror writers tend to be really sweet people. I don’t think any of us have any particularly violent tendencies. I don’t know how well-adjusted I am.

Within the author scale. We’re not as screwed up as comedians, not as needy as musicians. And also, you go to a murder mystery or a mystery writer or a horror writer group, and you cheer each other on. Whereas, you know, children’s authors scare me.

CP: Actually it’s a great community. I was just at ThrillerFest and you can see, like, Lee Child was spending almost two hours with somebody who’s about to do their first book. It’s really welcoming to others. It’s a friendly group. I can’t think of anyone that I met where egos clash or anything like that. You want to see her book succeed, his books succeed, everybody’s book do well. It’s what we do.

TG: Having been with other genres, which are much more competitive, I think mystery writers as a group, we do tend to be more supportive.

And at least in Canada, you’re the most acceptable genre, for the literary people, so literary people will read mysteries, it’s the sort of thing they do sitting in cottage country in a Muskoka chair, that’s okay. Why do you think mystery gets a special pass as a genre for the literary side?

LC: I don’t know if it necessarily gets a special pass, I think mystery books, thrillers in general, tend more to be like literary novels with a crime in them. Very often, it’s about character, it’s not about inventing a whole other world as in science fiction or fantasy, it’s not about research or math or space travel. It’s still fundamentally a book about people and some of those people are perhaps lying to other people, and that’s going on in literary novels as well.

TG: I don’t have any explanation because I find literary novels in just about every genre. You get a good fantasy novel and the craft is there and the same for certain romance novels. I think it has to do with perception, it has to do with how they’re marketed, it has to do with the readership. Coming in as a woman, I tend to feel that books that are primarily written by women for women usually get the shaft when it comes to respect.

But mystery is one of the places where women succeeded first. The name Agatha Christie, top-selling author of all time, pops in. You start listing off and wow, there are comparatively a lot of women writers.

TG: I think if you look at the numbers, it’s pretty much 50/50. I think half the mystery novels are men.

LC: And to get to Chris’ point, like P.D. James. To me, I think she’s literary. I think she’s a terrific writer.

TG: And interesting that she didn’t use female first name, she used her initials.

Have you ever had to do the elevator pitch? Pitch your book in the time it takes to go up.

LC: Ten words or less.

So I’m going to put you each on the spot and I’m going to start with you, Lorenzo.

LC: Ten words or less? It’s organized crime against terrorism. That’s pretty much it.

TG: I can’t do ten words or less.

CP: Well, Lorenzo’s elevator ride only went to the second floor. I’m going to take a longer elevator ride. Woman receives a mysterious, anonymous manuscript about a powerful man and then people start dying.

Whoa. That’s good.

CP: Thank you. That’s the 7th or 8th floor.

LC: That’s a good elevator ride.

TG: I get 20 floors.

You have the most books.

TG: A group of tourists on safari disappears in Africa, and it turns out six years later it’s related to a group of murders in Boston.

What I found in common with all three of your books is there seems to be a predator in each of yours, more than just a murder or a random killer. There’s a predator aspect to your frequently hidden bad guy. What is the appeal of the predator?

TG: Most murder is banal. You look at everyday murders and crimes, like, what idiots, why did they do that? I think that when we want to put our hero or heroine against a worthy antagonist, they have to be smarter. They have to be more evil. They have to be worthwhile battling, and maybe that’s when we use predators.

LC: I think in my case, my hero, for lack of a better term, is a criminal, is the head of an organized crime family. So his opponent has to be, and is, a terrorist, much more dangerous in many ways than organized crime. You want to give him human qualities but one kills for no reason or abstract religious reasons, the other guy kills for business.

CP: So you have two bad guys. I have none. I have no bad guys.

You also have no friends left in publishing. You have not just bitten the hand, you have chopped it off and fed it to them. ‘Cause it’s all about the publishing industry.

CP: It is, but I’m not mean to anyone in particular, and the people I’m mean to cannot be identified. The truth is, my wife is in publishing and most of my friends are in publishing. I don’t think anyone is actually angry with me. I think the only people who could be angry with me haven’t read it.

Oh, that’s good. Also a clever line.

CP: They hate me too much, to begin with, to have read it. I worked in book publishing for a long time and that’s why I wrote a thriller set in book publishing. Not because it’s an inherently dangerous or thrilling world where people get killed all the time over valuable properties, but because it’s a world I know pretty intimately, and it’s a world I hope readers would have at least a passing interest in learning more about. Most of this book is set in book publishing. It’s not about book publishing, but it’s set in that world. The characters are mostly different people in the book publishing universe.

You have a sort of, if Hitchcock called it the MacGuffin, the thing that they were, like The Maltese Falcon. But you’re in the digital age now, where The Maltese Falcon can get duplicated very easily. You can throw it into a photocopier, you can put it onto a thumbdrive, and anybody who reads that manuscript, it’s kind of like that movie, The Ring, you watch a VHS tape and you die within 24 hours. There’s no horror aspect to this but anyone who reads that manuscript, the clock is ticking on them.

CP: Yes. They’re getting killed. But the manuscript is not in digital form, and a lot of what’s in this book is about the permanence of a printed book and the fact that the printed pages, whether they’re manuscript pages of a printed book, are treated very differently than digital media and they’re not as sealable. It’s just much more difficult to photocopy a 400 or 500 page manuscript than it is to copy a flashdrive. There’s a lot of the plot that hinges on the fact that this book is not transmitted electronically. It cannot be copied that easily, and people are in a rush about this. One of my characters doesn’t even know how to use a photocopy machine. Do people still use photocopy machines in publishing offices? When I was an assistant, I only photocopied. It was my job. My job description: photocopy. I don’t think people do that anymore.

LC: It’s true, because when the manuscripts go to Hollywood, there’s this rush of messengers who would photocopy, and the worst fear you had was that the assistants or the messengers or the William Morrises would get their hands on it. Because people would often have $50 to sell the white-hot manuscript. Now it’s just, boom.

I read your book, Lorenzo, and I have to say I hated you right off the bat.

LC: Thank you.

Not for the writing, but because you came up with a new genre that I think was staring everyone in the face and you did it, and I was like, “Why didn’t I think of this?” Because it’s as someone said earlier, one of the publicists, it’s 24 meets The Godfather.

CP: Well, there’s an elevator pitch.

I mean, before you even push the button. I thought it was brilliant because it takes the, you’ve done a twist. There are no real, there are few incidental cops, but it’s organized crime versus terrorism, and I thought, “Wow, where did, what brilliant twisted idea, where did that come from?”

LC: I know exactly where that came from. I was having dinner with a bunch of people in 2006, it took me a while to get to it, but at Mr. Chow’s in L.A. and talking, something had happened, some terror attack. There were cops, people who weren’t cops at the table. It was an interesting table. And the prevalent feeling was that law enforcement and the military, because of restrictions, just can’t combat these terrorists because there’s just so many. There’s no one who can fight them. And I thought, well, there is. I mean the higher echelons of organized crime. The guys we never hear about who control every aspect of our lives, from the Italians to the Japanese to the Chinese Triads. And I said, if they did organize for a business purpose, not that they would defeat the terrorists, but they would make it an even playing field because they play by their own rules. Someone at the table thought that it might not be a bad book. And I had thought about it. I wrote two books after that and then it stayed with me. My editor said, you know, I think it’s time. Now’s the right moment and the right time. We’ve had to change the plot twice because they’re sort of ahead of us. They’re doing things we were planning to do. I guess, it’s a timely idea. And also, I don’t read reviews but I am interested in seeing my editor sent me a few where people are troubled that there are actually rooting for the organized crime guy, as opposed to the terrorists. One woman wrote, I can’t believe I’m cheering this guy on. He makes no bones about who he is. “I’m a criminal, I’m a drug dealer, I kill people, I’m in a bad business, and I’m a bad guy in a bad business.” But he’s my bad guy.

TG: You have no bad guys and he has no good guys.

LC: Exactly.

You’ve got another series of books, you’re at 25, and are all those Rizzoli and Isles?

TG: Only 10 are.

LC: Only 10.

And he’s just about to launch a series because we’ve only seen the first battle in what he himself says, this is going to be a long and painful war.

LC: I don’t know how many ticks I’ve got left on my clock here, but as long as they let me do them. Yeah.

Any advice for him? Any mistakes where you kind of go, whatever you do don’t…?

TG: I wandered into doing a series. I never planned to do a series. It’s just that from the very first book, this one character kept occurring to me and I wanted to find out what happened to her later on, I think that’s the number one thing that launches a series and keeps a series going, that these characters never really settle down. There’s always some kind of turmoil in their lives, you want to go back and see what happens next. The other thing I find really useful in a long-lived series, is that you’re not just one character, you’re talking about a universe of characters. You can go back and forth to their lives as well. It becomes a continuing soap opera, I think for me, I write the books not just because it’s easier to write because you know these people, I want to go back and see what happens to them. There has to be some sort of evolution in their lives and the characters and their relationships in order for it to stay interesting.

You also have the advantage or disadvantage of having this series turn into a TV series.

TG: I’m not going to say anything bad about television because it helps book sales. Those characters are very different from my books, but what matters is that all of a sudden when people see the TV show and they see, based on a series of novels by, they go to the novels. And they’ll be parallel universes, I’ll continue writing the books I always have and the TV show will go off in its own direction. But in a way, they’re all complimented to each other.

Do you ever write the episodes or anything, consult?

TG: I’m considered the consultant but it’s the easier consultant job where I don’t have to do anything.

It just means you signing a cheque?

TG: Endorsing a cheque, yeah.

Tough thing to do. Because the TV show, it seems to have caught on with, I don’t know how to phrase this delicately so I won’t, the people who are cheering for Xena to sleep with Gabrielle are quite enamored with the fact that Rizzoli and Isles really should get naked together.

TG: We call them shippers. They want this to go forward into lesbian relationship. Which is something I certainly never anticipated, but when it came out, so to speak, I was both flattered that they saw this relationship as being so strong that they would see it as a romantic relationship, and the world of fan-fiction has been fascinating to me too. People ask, doesn’t it bother you, and I always say, I feel like I wrote the original melody, and they’re doing the jazz version. It’s okay. When you release these characters out into the world, it’s like sending your children, they go to college, they become different people. You have no control over it after that. But still, I was the one who created them so I feel great.

After reading the book, I was like, there’s no way these characters get naked together.

TG: They’re very different. Maura Isles is very much me. Scientific, logical, somebody who wants to believe there’s an explanation for everything, and not in any way spontaneous. And then you have Jane Rizzoli who goes by her hunches and she’s the cop. I like that contrast and I like being able to go back and forth between their points of view because it’s refreshing to me as a writer.

There’s also a moment in the book where you flip it. Isles trusts her gut at one point, cuts Rizzoli out of something and has somebody else help her. Rizzoli gets really sticky about it and very pouty, which is not something I expected.

TG: Well, she has a temper. I think she feels betrayed because she always feels Maura is the person that she’s closest too and when Maura can’t get Jane to follow her with this hunch, she has to turn to somebody else. That’s the evolution of this relationship. They slowly become friends, they have falling outs, like real friendships. There are good days and bad days between two people. I want to be realistic about that.

In The Accident, I never knew who I was cheering for, because everybody was, I was going to say, a little bit grey. Some are really grey, heading towards black, and I was just never sure how much fun was that to construct?

CP: That was fun. I wouldn’t call that part fun but, I don’t know anybody who is all good and I’ve never come across anybody who’s all bad. One of the only things that I don’t like in fiction and I can’t relate to are characters who are either one of those things. It turns me off immediately to find in the opening pages, a perfect hero who has a couple of perfect flaws. He perhaps drinks too much. Those are the types of books that I just can’t read, I don’t relate to the characterizations of people in that way. I didn’t want to create anybody who was either all good or all bad. And all of the characters in this book are driven in this instance in this part of their lives, by particular ambition and the manuscript that arrives in Isabel Reed’s office is a reflection of all their ambitions. I think a lot of people are at their very worst when they are confronted by their ambitions and what they will do and who will they become to get the things that they want out of life. If this book is about any one theme, it is about ambition. Everybody in this book is confronting this thing, this manuscript, that is either going to be their salvation or their ruin, a step up in their career, or [for] a few of them, the end of their lives. That’s the crux of all this, is what do we do and who do we become when they’re trying to get ahead in the world.

Right from the get-go, this book could be completely true and in which case, a very powerful person’s in trouble, or it could be a very clever fabrication set up to crush and destroy this equally powerful man and we’re never really sure as it goes on, which it is, and that drove me completely nuts as a reader in a really good way.

CP: I don’t think there’s anything I can say about that without ruining anything readers are going to get from the book. That was also the point of it. There’s a lot we don’t know in life. There’s a lot that you go through your whole life, important questions wanting the answer to that you just don’t know, I don’t think that’s the case in The Accident. I don’t want this book to be as fundamentally unsatisfying as a lifelong mystery, but I wanted readers to not know for a very long time what exactly was going on.

You also, at the end, leave it open. I don’t want to give anything away, but you might also be with these other two, in that you might be going back to some of these characters, part of this situation again in the future.

CP: I might, yeah. I intend to, I just don’t intend to write a series.

What’s your beef against a series?

CP: My beef against series is I think I’m too lazy. Frankly, I can’t ever see producing a book a year and there are people—do you write a book every year?

TG: I write one every two years.

CP: I think maybe I could manage that but there are a lot of people who write a book a year or more and I don’t see it. If you write a series, at least in the get-go, your publisher and your readers really demand that out of you. If you can’t deliver that, then you can’t really get into that business and I don’t think I can deliver it.

Well, that may be the most honest author revelation ever.

TG: A book every year, it’s really grueling if you have a family, if you have a life. That’s why I’m trying to pull back. I’m looking at how many days I have left in the ticker and how much life you have to enjoy and after a while, getting chained to your desk seems like yeah, you’re in the salt mine.

LC: I’m new to this and I don’t do one every year, and now I have to. I do a lot of scripts so I didn’t find out until about two, three weeks ago that the next one is due in December, and I actually said, “This December?” And he said yeah, ‘cause it’s got to be out next July. It’s like feeding the beast.

CP: Writing a book every year also means that you’re writing the book and you are promoting the book and you’re doing all the other things you need to do to get through life. It’s not like you have 12 months to write a book, you have six or seven months to write a book. That’s pretty short. If you know what all these books are going to be in advance, I think its very easy, but if you don’t and all of a sudden it’s mid-August and you’ve got a deadline in four months, you say “Jesus.” I’m sorry Lorenzo. I don’t want to panic you.

LC: I need a drink.

TG: And then how do you feed the well? You have to continually feed the creative well.

LC: And you want to make the series, you don’t just want to knock it out. Each has to be better than the last one. I’ve just started reading a series, the one that my editor recommended, he never got the whole Seven Deadly Sins, Lawrence Sanders, the first four he said were really terrific. I don’t know if he did one a year but we’ll see.

You have worked before with the Wolf.

LC: Mr. Wolf.

The big Wolf of Law & Order. There are probably scars from your back when he went into the writer’s room and whipped you.

LC: Actually, he leaves you alone. He’s a good guy to work for.

You’re used to writing TV speak, which is pretty fast, especially the second half of the season when the gap has narrowed and they’re filming ages…

LC: There’s a thing in Law & Order that did tandem weeks. You do 24 episodes but you only have 20 weeks. So that means there’s two months a year where you do two episodes at once, and that makes the actors cranky, ‘cause they’re working 18 to 20 hours a day. And we never know. But it was a lot of fun. It’s fun to be on the streets 20 hours and shooting. I loved being on sets and you can change on the fly. I was Jerry Orbach’s main guy and it helped that he had a photographic memory so you could change he would, Got it. Sam Waterston does not have a photographic memory and he had long, Sam-things to say. It was a great experience. It does help with the books. I do think one form fed the other.