The Last Dead Girl was recently reviewed by us and found its way to our “Must Read” category (see the review here): The series has already become one of our favorites and therefore prompted us to cover a Q&A with author which follows.
David Loogan is the hero of your two earlier novels, but in this new book you delve into his past. Is this a story you’ve been meaning to tell since you began writing this series?
I’ve never really had an overarching plan for the series. Each book tends to develop on its own. The Last Dead Girl began with the victim, a young law student named Jana Fletcher. When I started to plot the novel, I intended to set it in the present day. Jana was going to be an intern at Gray Streets, the crime magazine that David edits in the earlier books. If I had gone that way, the relationship between David and Jana would have been very different. But eventually I realized that the story I wanted to tell would work better if the hero was romantically involved with the victim: it would give him a much stronger motive for tracking down her killer. That’s when I decided to make David and Jana the same age, and to make them lovers. Then it became a story of David’s past, and everything fell into place.
Jana Fletcher is a law student working on an Innocence Project—seeking to exonerate people who’ve been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. What led you to build this novel around her?
The idea of an Innocence Project has interested me ever since I first became aware of the term, back in the 1990s. In the novel, Jana gets caught up with one particular case: a schoolteacher who’s been convicted of killing his wife. The idea of an innocent man serving time in prison for a murder he didn’t commit lends itself perfectly to a crime novel. The tension is built in. If the man in prison is innocent, it follows that the real killer is out there somewhere—and if he wants to remain free he has to make sure no one discovers the truth. It’s Jana’s involvement in this case that leads to her death, and after she’s gone David takes it on himself to finish the work she started and find her killer.
David finds himself in conflict with Frank Moretti, the homicide detective assigned to Jana’s murder. How would you describe their relationship?
Frank Moretti is in his fifties, a seasoned detective, a bit world-weary. He has little patience for David’s interference in his case. Moretti also has secrets of his own, and motives that may not be apparent on the surface. Part of the mystery that David has to solve is deciding whether Moretti is a good cop or a bad cop. Over the course of the book, David develops a sense of respect for Moretti, but the two of them disagree about what really happened to Jana and who’s responsible for her death. Are these honest disagreements, or does Moretti have his own hidden agenda? David never really knows until the end, and that made the scenes between these two characters a lot of fun to write.
We get glimpses of the killer throughout this book, though his identity remains a mystery for most of it. We know him only as “K.” How would you say he compares to the villains of your earlier novels?
K is probably the darkest villain I’ve written so far. He’s not a reluctant killer, like Anthony Lark of Very Bad Men. He has few redeeming qualities, though he can occasionally be witty. I think writers are usually tempted to develop a sympathy for their creations, even the worst of them, but there’s nothing sympathetic about K. My hope is that readers will find him compelling, and fascinating to watch—and that they’ll be satisfied in the end when he gets what’s coming to him.
The setting for THE LAST DEAD GIRL is Rome, New York—your own hometown. How much of real-life Rome did you capture in the book?
Rome is a small city in upstate New York that was once home to a major Air Force base. But the base closed down in the early nineties and since then the city has been losing population. The version of Rome that I write about in the novel is a bit bigger and more prosperous—and definitely has a higher crime rate. I use a number of real locations and street names, and a lot of the action takes place on the back roads on the western edge of the city—not very far from the house where I grew up. One of the murders takes place on a trail alongside a section of the old Erie Canal, a trail where I used to walk when I was younger. I figured the canal would be a good place to dispose of a body. In some cases I’ve taken liberties in describing the city. I needed a university with a law school, for example, and since there’s no university in Rome I invented one.
In this book, we’re seeing David Loogan at a different time of his life. He’s even living under a different name—David Malone. How different is he, in terms of personality, from the man we’ve come to know in your first two books?
In Bad Things Happen and Very Bad Men, David is in his late thirties; in this new book, he’s twenty-six. So obviously he’s had less experience. I think he’s less guarded, less of a loner. He’s probably less cynical. But I think readers will recognize him. He’s essentially the same man, with the same moral code and the same sense of loyalty. And his voice is the same—he has the same dry sense of humor. This book can stand on its own; readers who haven’t read the first two will be able to enjoy this one on its own terms. And my hope is that those who are already familiar with David will like seeing the younger version. They’ll learn some things about him that might surprise them: that he was once engaged to be married; that he drove a pickup truck and worked as a contractor inspecting houses. They’ll even get to see him take his first drink of Scotch.
THE LAST DEAD GIRL is set in 1998. Where were you then? What were you doing, and what stands out for you about that time?
Through most of the 1990s I was living in Bowling Green, Ohio, and working as the managing editor of an academic journal that published essays on philosophy and public policy. It was my first job after graduate school and I was grateful to have it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the long term. I probably shouldn’t have stayed as long as I did. I’d written some short stories in college, and I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to write a novel. The summer of 1998 was when I told my employers at the journal that I’d be leaving. I stayed on for a few months until they could find a replacement, but after that I moved to Ann Arbor and started to devote my time to writing. It took me another ten years to get published, but that was the beginning of the process.
What inspired you to become a writer? And what drew you to crime fiction?
I grew up in a family of readers. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading aloud to my brother and me on summer afternoons. I remember writing my first story at the age of seven. As a teenager I discovered science fiction and fantasy: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien. When I first thought about being a writer I thought I would write about imaginary worlds—but then I discovered mysteries. One of my early favorites was Lawrence Block; I remember being very impressed by his novel Eight Million Ways to Die. Another was Gregory Mcdonald, who wrote the Fletch series. Then in college I discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I read The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye and The Maltese Falcon—and I knew that I wanted to write crime novels.
What’s next? Are you working on a new David Loogan book?
I hope to bring back David Loogan in the future, but what I’m working on right now is a stand-alone novel with a brand new cast of characters. It centers on a woman whose best friend was killed when they were teenagers. She grows up to become a true crime writer, and eventually she goes back to her hometown to unravel the mystery of her friend’s death.