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John Lutz and the art of the sympathetic villain

By Kobo • February 17, 2018


John Lutz's work spans virtually every mystery sub-genre — from political suspense, to espionage, to amateur detective, he's written a lot. With more than forty novels and over 200 short stories and articles to his name, it's no surprise he's won numerous awards. We spoke to John about his latest novel, The Honorable Traitors.

You've written private eye, serial killer, psychological suspense every genre in crime fiction. Why have you now turned to the spy thriller?

All crime fiction is about people doing bad things. In the espionage genre, they're doing big bad things. I guess you could say I'm interested in evil-doing on a global scale.

But your work is distinguished by your what shall we call them, sympathetic villains? Even the serial killers.

Human villains, anyway. Humans seldom think of themselves as being bad. Even if they're doing unquestionably evil deeds, they're being forced to. That holds true with the espionage genre. The villains are serving their country. Or keeping faith with some sort of ideology. They're determined and courageous. Which is what makes them so dangerous.

Your new novel is titled The Honorable Traitors. Are they really honorable?

In their own minds, no question. Readers may find them sympathetic. Even admirable — though they're pulling off what someone in the book calls, "The biggest theft in history."

Lutz John c- Phil Shoulberg Photography LLC
Author John Lutz

Are they your main villains?

No. The main villain is someone I don't want to say too much about. For a long time in the book, he doesn't even have a name. But I can say that he sees himself as a man with a just mission. He's avenging a great wrong.

Sounds like he has a Biblical concept of justice an eye for an eye?

Yes. In this case, it's tens of thousands of deaths for tens of thousands of deaths.

I hope we have someone good defending us from him. Tell us about your hero.

Thomas Laker was a star running back at Notre Dame. He could've turned pro, but decided to serve his country instead. He was a CIA agent for many years, until a roadside bomb in Iraq injured him. On his recovery, he was offered a high-up desk job that would have kept him in Langley. Instead he "vanished into the mists beyond the CIA," as another character in the book puts it.

Can you tell me where he went...or would you have to kill me?

I'll make an exception. Laker works for The Gray Outfit, an elite intelligence agency with headquarters in a Capitol Hill townhouse. His boss is Samuel Mason, a tough veteran spymaster who is answerable to very few — and even to those few, he's ornery. The Outfit works outside the lines. Instead of a bureaucratic mandate, they have the personal reputations of their agents. People tell Laker things they won't tell anyone else, because they know he'll act on the information.

What's Laker like?

He lives in a ramshackle loft in an unfashionable part of Washington. It was once a pin factory. He drinks a single-malt scotch so expensive he keeps it in a safe. When the situation calls for it, he carries a Beretta M9. But even if you catch him unarmed, he's still pretty tough. He likes old Ford Mustangs. And Ava North.

And who is Ava North?

A beautiful redhead who works for the NSA. One of their brightest code breakers. She does it only out of patriotism. She doesn't need the money — her family is wealthy and well-connected. But her legacy has a dark side. Confidants of presidents going back to FDR's administration, the elder Norths have learned dangerous secrets. Ava will need all her considerable wits. And Laker.

Where is the novel set?

That's another attraction the spy genre holds for me. You get to travel. Or your characters do, anyway. In The Honorable Traitors, Laker and Ava will cross the USA, from Hawaii to New York City. The next one, The Havana Game, has settings all over the world.

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