By Cathy Perkins
Palumbo’s fourth novel in the series, PHANTOM LIMB, opens with
psychologist and Pittsburgh police department consultant Daniel
Rinaldi’s new patient: Lisa Campbell, a local girl whose lurid,
short-lived Hollywood career sent her scurrying back to the Steel City.
Now married to one of the city’s richest tycoons, she comes to Danny’s
office with a challenge: talk her out of committing suicide. Though he
buys some time, she’s kidnapped right outside his office. The search for
Lisa pits the police—and Danny—against a lethal adversary. At the same
time, he tries to assist a friend’s brother, a bitter Afghan vet who
lost a leg in combat, whose own life now appears at risk. Or is it?
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (including My Favorite Year
and Welcome Back, Kotter
Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist and author. His
acclaimed series of crime novels (MIRROR IMAGE, FEVER DREAM, NIGHT
TERRORS and the upcoming PHANTOM LIMB) feature psychologist Daniel
Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh police. All
are from Poisoned Pen Press.
You’ve had a fascinating career—screenwriter to
psychotherapist to novelist. As a psychotherapist, do you find this
background provides insights into human behavior and/or helps develop
the hero, villain, and perhaps the victim in your novels?
Definitely! I think the merging of my two careers—seventeen years as a
TV/film writer and nearly three decades as a psychotherapist—has
benefitted both the writing in general, and my exploration of human
behavior in particular. Certainly my ongoing study of trauma has
contributed to my understanding of the psychological issues with which
the crime victims in my novels grapple. As for my hero, psychologist and
trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, my experience as a therapist in private
practice—as well as time spent working in clinics and a psychiatric
hospital—has given me a unique perspective on what might motivate a guy
like him. As it turns out, he and I share a lot of the same ideas about
the flaws in the mental health system and how psychotherapy is
practiced. Go figure.
Although officially set in Pittsburgh, your Daniel Rinaldi
series has avoided the “Cabot Cove” (kill everyone in town) effect
through varied locations for the four books. How important do you
believe setting and secondary characters are to a series?
I’m glad that you noticed how varied the locales are in the novels,
even though they’re ostensibly set in Pittsburgh. Over the course of the
four books (so far!), the stories have taken readers to rural
Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Ohio and West Virginia.
I think this gives me greater freedom in the writing, since I’m not
forced to situate all the action in Pittsburgh proper. Especially since I
believe setting is crucial to giving visual interest and narrative
vitality to the story. Just as I believe having interesting, believable
secondary characters are crucial to the success of any long-term series.
They add realism and context to the world of the hero. In fact, their
interaction with my lead character actually helps define him. Moreover,
if the emails I get are any indication, readers seem to enjoy watching
the series’ secondary characters grow and change. I know I
As a follow up, I noticed Rinaldi’s love interest has a
background role. What place do you see for relationships in action
adventures or in suspense in general?
Again, I think the exploration of relationships is crucial to giving
any suspense novel realism, depth, and relevancy. If the characters, and
the ways they interact, aren’t compelling, why should we care what
happens to them? The way I see it, good writing of any type depends on
conflict, which derives from the expression of strong emotions.
Moreover, if the stakes aren’t high—personally or professionally—for
your characters, the reader’s investment in the story won’t be very
Daniel Rinaldi is a non-law enforcement protagonist who often
takes on an independent investigative role, generally chasing the
villains in superb action adventure scenes. How do you balance the fine
line between a driven character and a reckless risk-taker?
In Rinaldi’s case, I’m afraid there’s not much of a fine line.
Practically every person in his life decries his “hero complex.” One of
his colleagues on the force, Sgt. Harry Polk, is constantly reminding
Rinaldi that he’s not a cop. But one of the things I strive for in the
writing is to show how his emotional wounds, his own personal demons,
compel a good deal of Rinaldi’s actions. And how this behavior is the
counterpoint to his clear professionalism as a therapist.
Your books are known for well-written action and pace. Do you
find this emphasis the nature of the genre or do you think it reflects a
larger society or perhaps today’s shorter attention span?
Wow, that question may be above my pay grade! I do think a modern
crime thriller needs thrills as well as crime, as long as the action
scenes are realistic and seem to emerge naturally from the situation. So
as not to seem to dodge the broader question, I do think crime novels
reflect society, and have always done so. When I think of 1880s London,
my reference point is the Holmes canon. My image of the Boston
underworld is half George V. Higgins, half Dennis Lehane. The author Tom
Wolfe said that the novel—any novel—has always served to describe a
culture’s “status details,” the issues, trends, and mores of the society
that the particular novel depicts. This is as true of crime novels as
it is of general fiction.
Going back to your psychotherapist role, I found you’re
described as a specialist in creative issues. Could you expand on that
After all my years as a TV and film writer, as well as a novelist and
short story writer going back to the 1970’s, I figured that
specializing in creative issues made sense when I started my therapy
practice. Though most of my patients are writers in the entertainment
industry, I also have novelists and journalists in my practice. As well
as some musicians and actors. In my experience, creative people all tend
to struggle with the same kinds of issues, regardless of medium or
genre: “blocks,” procrastination, fear of rejection, anxiety,
depression, and so on. Not to mention the havoc that having creative
ambitions can play on relationships! As Robert Frost said, “The one
thing all nations on earth share is the fear that a member of the family
is going to want to be an artist.”
Tell us something about PHANTOM LIMB that isn’t mentioned in the publisher’s synopsis.
The character of Skip Hines, a returning vet who lost a leg to an IED
in Afghanistan, suffers from “phantom limb” syndrome: the strange
sensation that his missing limb is still there. That it itches
sometimes, and feels the cold. As I got deeper into the writing, I
realized that his phantom limb symptoms were a metaphor for the felt
sense of loss we all experience sometimes in life. The death of a loved
one, a painful divorce. That feeling that the person is not really gone
from our lives. That their presence is still with us, as though a
tangible thing. Given that Daniel Rinaldi’s wife was murdered, and his
father died of alcoholism, he can really relate to Skip’s feeling that
something that is gone is still, uncannily, there
. At least in his mind.
Okay, enough with the business questions! How about some fun stuff? You know, just between the two of us. If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to do onsite research, where would it be?
Easy. Two places I’ve already been and am desperate to re-visit. The
first is Nepal, where I trekked for weeks in the Himals. The landscape
is breathtaking, the Nepali people the kindest and most generous of
spirit I’ve ever encountered. The second place couldn’t be more
different: Oxford, whose history and architecture really speaks to the
Anglophile in me. I’d love to spend my dotage sitting under a
thousand-year-old gargoyle, in some shadowed, forgotten corner of some
shadowed, forgotten gothic building, with a glass of Pinot Noir and a
What are you reading now for pleasure?
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt. What an amazing writer!
What’s next for you?
Diving into the fifth Daniel Rinaldi novel. I’m looking forward to
seeing what kind of trouble the poor guy is going to get into next.
Reposted from The Big Thrill