Albert Camus

Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Phantom Limb: A Daniel Rinaldi Mystery by Dennis Palumbo

Published: September 2nd, 2014


Psychologist and Pittsburgh Police Department consultant Daniel Rinaldi has a new patient. Lisa Harland, a local girl, once made a splash in Playboy and the dubious side of Hollywood before bottoming out. Back home, down and out again, she married one of the city’s richest and most ruthless tycoons. Lisa’s challenge to Danny is that she intends to commit suicide by 7:00 PM. His therapist skills may buy some time—but, exiting, she’s kidnapped right outside his office.

Summoned to the Harland estate, Danny is forced, through a bizarre sequence of events, to be the bag man on the ransom delivery. This draws him into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a brilliant, lethal adversary. Complicating things is the unhappy Harland family, whose members have dark secrets of their own along with suspect loyalties, as well as one of Danny’s other patients, a volatile vet whose life may, like Lisa’s, be at risk. What is really at stake here?

Phantom Limb, fourth in the acclaimed series of Daniel Rinaldi thrillers, will keep readers guessing until the very last page.

by  Dennis Palumbo
One of my favorite parts about writing mystery thrillers is devising clever, surprising twists and turns for the narrative. However, I think this aspect of writing mysteries---from cozy whodunnits to slice-of-life procedurals---is misunderstood by a lot of new writers. 

As a licensed psychotherapist as well as an author, my main interest is the way people think and feel---what I consider the mystery of human behavior. For me, then, developing rich, complicated characters is the key to devising twists and turns, because nothing is as surprising as what people actually do. When writing a mystery or thriller, it’s important to remember that characters act the way they do because they’re driven by strong emotion. Whether a character is good, bad, or---more realistically---something in between, he or she is motivated by needs, passions, prejudices, yearnings, fear...in other words, the whole cornucopia of human feelings. 

So what does that have to do with creating surprising twists and turns? Ask yourself: has someone in your life, or you yourself, ever done something unexpected? Completely out of character? Or, more precisely, something that took planning, resolve, subterfuge? As a writer, your job is to mine these kinds of feelings and impulses to help create a narrative atmosphere in which a stunning turn is not only surprising, but, once revealed, logical. Even inevitable. 

At a practical level, one way to weave twists and turns into your story is to have the facts, evidence, or narrative details seem to indicate that what’s happening appears to be true, when in fact these same details could indicate the exact opposite situation. For example, a bloody thumbprint belonging to a suspect looks as though it was left by him, indicating guilt, until your hero proves it was actually planted. And then you reveal that the person who planted it was the suspect himself! By throwing suspicion on himself in such a way that it can be disproved, he paradoxically throws suspicion off himself. This kind of thing is as old as Agatha Christie and as current as Michael Connelly. 

But even with so obvious a trick, the thing that makes it really matter, really surprises the reader once the truth is revealed, is that it was perpetrated by someone the reader thought he or she knew. That the character was someone the reader liked, or related to, or was rooting for. Even a character whose motives seem blatantly obvious. Even when the character him- or herself is telling us the story. From Who Killed Roger Ackroyd to Gone Girl, the ultimate twists come from the realization that we were being deceived all along. 

My point is, what makes a good twist or surprising turn in a mystery isn’t so much the trickery but the gut-wrenching revelations about human nature. The way that expectations are overturned, true motives are revealed. How, in the end, things are often not what they seem. 

Kind of like life. 

The last time I saw Lisa Campbell, she was naked.

That was almost thirty years ago, when I was in junior high and she was the latest Hot Young Thing, smiling invitingly out at me—and thousands of other lonely guys—from the pages of Playboy Magazine. Barely nineteen,sprawled seductively across rumpled satin sheets. Every horny adolescent’s fantasy. Perfect breasts, perfect ass, perfect teeth.

Now, as she stood in my office waiting room, cashmere sweater folded neatly over her arm, I had to admit that the years since had taken their toll. Her face—though still comely, fineboned—was lined, leather-tanned. Framed by thick chestnut brown hair, lightly streaked with silver. Strained, weary eyes burned behind fashionable wire-rimmed glasses.

She’d been standing at the waiting room’s single window when I came out to greet her. Her still-shapely body turned away from me, she stared out at the cool light of early spring. Five floors up from Forbes Avenue, the view included the University of Pittsburgh’s urban campus—its gabled buildings, chain stores and local hangouts—as well as the new green shoots on the venerable maples and oaks lining the sidewalks. Plus the familiar cacophony of car horns, downshifting semis, and shouting students crossing against the streetlight, hurrying to make their last classes of the afternoon.

At first, Lisa didn’t seem to register me. Then, as if reluctant to pull herself from the sights and sounds beyond the window, she turned to face me.

I felt her shrewd, guarded gaze as we shook hands. Her undisguised appraisal of my looks, my clothes, my apparent social status. I returned the favor, taking in her designer-label blouse, slacks, and heels, her five-hundred-dollar haircut, the expensive diamond bracelet and matching wedding ring.

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Harland,” I said. “I’m Daniel Rinaldi.”

“Obviously.” Her lips tightened. “And don’t use my goddamn married name. Nobody else does. I’ll always be Lisa Campbell.”

I nodded stiffly, then led her into my office.

I knew her story, of course. At least the public version. Most people here in Pittsburgh and environs did, too. Especially in her hometown of Waterson, about a hundred miles east of the city. Her career journey, from small-town beauty contestant to Playboy Playmate to sexy film actress, had been a long, well publicized one. Accompanied by the shrill carping of Waterson’s outraged local press, excommunication from her church, and the painful yet predictable estrangement from her pious, deeply conservative family.

It didn’t help that, once she’d moved to Hollywood, her acting career consisted mostly of roles in low-budget horror films, in which she was frequently naked, and invariably tortured and killed. She also developed a reputation as a reliably freaky party animal, clubbing every night with the rich and trendy, showing up late and disoriented for work, sleeping with the usual mix of celebrities and Eurotrash. 

Until her very public second divorce, a protracted and ugly drug scandal, and a series of embarrassing box office flops pushed her out of the glare of the tabloid spotlight and—seemingly overnight—into the purgatory of semi-obscurity.

At least, that was how her story was told in a two-part feature the Post-Gazette ran on Lisa when, almost a decade ago, she abruptly returned to her hometown. “With her tail between her legs,” as one self-satisfied neighbor had put it...

About the author:
Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT is a writer and licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. The first Rinaldi mystery, Mirror Image, was published in 2010. 
Palumbo is also the author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a collection of mystery short stories,From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). 
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, Palumbo’s credits include the feature film My Favorite Year, for which he was nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay. He was also a staff writer for the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, and has written numerous series episodes and pilots. 
His first novel, City Wars (Bantam Books) is currently in development as a feature film, and his short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere. 
He provides articles and reviews for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet, and many others. His column, “The Writer’s Life,” appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. He’s also done commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and blogs regularly for The Huffington Post. 
Dennis conducts workshops throughout the country. Recent appearances include the Family Therapy Network Annual Symposium, the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Cal State Northridge, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, PEN West, the Writers Guild Foundation, the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Screenwriting Expo, USC, the Romance Writers of America, the Nieman Foundation, the Directors Guild, and UCLA. 
His work helping writers has been profiled in The New York Times, Premiere Magazine, Fade In, Angeleno, GQ, The Los Angeles Times and other publications, as well as on NPR and CNN. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Pepperdine University, he serves on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year.


Omnimystery News said...

What a terrific guest post by this author. Thanks so much for featuring him and his new mystery.

CCAM said...

@Lance - You are welcome. I'm also happy when our topics are developed so nicely. GPs (and interviews) are a great "business card"