John Lutz is an old school, in a very good way, crime writer whose first novel—The Truth of the Matter—was published in 1971. Since then he has written a few dozen more including three private eye series: the bedraggled and softhearted Alo Nudger, the physically damaged and tough as nails Fred Carver, and the more police procedural-like Frank Quinn. The Nudger and Carver novels have run their cycles, but the Frank Quinn series continues to march strong.
Quinn was introduced in the 2004 novel Darker Than Night published as a paperback original by Pinnacle Books. A novel that is more than ten years old, but a novel I left unread until recently. “The Night Prowler” is something of a fetish killer. He relives a powerful incident fifteen years earlier. He stalks his prey—seemingly happily married couples—focusing his attention on the wife. He leaves anonymous gifts: expensive jackets, candy, gourmet jam, roses. He does all this as a twisted foreplay to his end game, which is the violent death of both partners.
Frank Quinn is a disgraced former NYPD detective who was chased from the force with nothing except his pension. He molders in a decrepit Manhattan apartment. His ex-wife and daughter are gone. His reputation is broke, and his only comfort is from the bottle. Everything changes when he is approached by the upwardly mobile and very ambitious Harley Renz. Renz has an offer—find The Night Prowler and get his job back, and maybe his reputation, too.
Mr Lutz plays the serial killer plot perfectly—developing both the protagonist and antagonist with relish while holding back the killer’s identity until late in the game. The plot is an example of oversized perfection. It is tricky, smooth, and, even better, believable. Believable because of the strong character development, and the hardnosed blue collar police procedural aspect to the investigation. The detective work seems real and workable, which grounds the expansiveness of both the crimes and the perpetrator.
Darker Than Night is the real thing. It is entertaining, intriguing, and over the top without ever losing its footing. It is Mr Lutz’s old school approach—logical scene to scene plotting, character development cum character motive—mixed with the heady spectacular plot of the large serial killer novel that makes it work. And it works very well.