A few years back, crime novelist Lisa Lutz got the idea to write a new book in conjunction with another writer. Her plan was they’d alternate penning the chapters, neither author divulging what they were leading toward, or who they wanted the killer to be. More importantly, neither could reverse a plot development made by the other.
But when none of the established crime writers she knew could commit to the project, Lutz turned, somewhat reluctantly, to David Hayward, a poet and long-time friend of hers—not to mention a former boyfriend whom she hadn’t seen in months.
Heads You Lose is presented as the raw data of their collaborative experiment: on one level a full-length murder mystery, but also peppered throughout with Lutz and Hayward’s increasingly exasperated comments and emails to one another. An apologetic editor’s note informs us up front that the project was not, shall we say, a success.
Is it a completely artificial conceit? You betcha. Let’s be clear: every so-called private comment here was written with the paying public fully in mind. Nothing indicates you’re seeing a single bit of interaction that wasn’t calculated far in advance.
But is it also a fun, biting deconstruction of the twist-filled commercial thriller genre? Absolutely.
The thriller itself—concerning a pair of pot-growing siblings in small-town Northern California who get sucked into solving a murder spree—is completely serviceable. Nothing special. The real intrigue, however, comes from the nonstop game of literary one-upmanship going on backstage, as Lutz and Hayward (well, mostly Hayward) take a kind of perverse delight in trying to write each other into a corner.
And, of course, they don’t stay polite for long. “Can I get you anything else while I’m up?” Hayward asks in one of his between-chapter notes. “Compelling plot developments for you to commandeer? Essential backstory to ridicule? Another painstakingly crafted character to assassinate?”
Elsewhere, when Lutz accuses Hayward of using language that’s too hifalutin for her mainstream audience, he responds with a completely brain-dead scene containing paragraphs like “Terry was cutting the pretty plants. Cut, cut, cut went the scissors.” The font size temporarily doubles, too. (Lutz’s reply? “My thoughts, in chronological order: 1. Fuck you. 2. Seriously, fuck you.”)
So of course the actual characters in Heads You Lose feel like chess pieces, able to be moved around and sometimes decapitated at a moment’s notice. No, not chess pieces—more like those disposable army men, the ones little kids the world over like to melt with a well-placed magnifying glass.
GB Putnam and Sons, 320 pp., $31.99, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, June 9, 2011)