In a tiny town inland from San Francisco, Lacey and Paul Hansen, brother and sister, make a haphazard living as growers and sellers of marijuana. For Lacey, who once shacked up with her boyfriend, Hart, in a trailer park where he cooked meth, the arrangement is a step up. For Paul, every day is a haze because he smokes his own product and livens up only when Lacey puts NoDoz in his beer.

One night when Lacey is taking out the trash, she stumbles over a body, with the head missing, dumped next to their driveway. If she and Paul call the local sheriff, he will almost certainly discover their weed so they load the headless interloper into their truck and leave it in the woods where they hope it will be discovered. Instead, it reappears on their property a few days later. Even potheads recognize a wandering corpse as a sign of real trouble. More follows: four murders in the next 16 days.

Who would have guessed that the inhabitants of little Mercer, Calif., were keeping so many secrets? The sheriff has a floozy for a wife. The one-time stripper limps from a pole-dancing injury and quotes Kierkegaard. The former Marine specializes in irrigation projects for marijuana growers. The long-time doctor has disappeared without notice. Two assisted living facilities compete for the wrinkled elderly and file suspicious paper work for medical reimbursement.

If such an off-kilter murder mystery makes you think of Lisa Lutz, you’re right and have probably read some of her four Spellman Files novels - all in paperback, she would gleefully insist. For Heads You Lose, she dreamed up a tag-team writing project with a former boyfriend and aspiring poet, David Hayward. The rules were simple: Lutz wrote the odd chapters, Hayward the even, and neither could alter anything by the other. To the great relief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, the 31 chapters actually mesh effectively and make a coherent book. The plot wanders but gives the many characters scope to develop their idiosyncrasies. Unlike the competition from other mystery or thriller novels, the book does not defy common sense.

With each completed chapter, the coauthors exchanged increasingly testy emails. Hayward is fond of obscure words like “subfusc,” “asperous,” and “caliginous,” leading Lutz to dub him “Dr. Thesaurus.” When she reminds him that she took three years of Latin in high school, he asks, “Latin Dance?” Because Hayward bogs down the plot by expanding the role of minor characters, Lutz begins to kill them off, for which he calls her “the Pol Pot of mystery writing.”

Long before solving the murders, Lutz and Hayward make clear why they broke up - and why they both remain single. He accuses her of lacking patience and adds, “I’m reminded of all the weak lukewarm tea you’ve served me because you couldn’t wait for the water to boil.” She answers. “too much drinking and talking. ? that sounds like a fitting description of our whole relationship.”

Near the end, Lutz, completely exasperated, wonders, “What was I thinking collaborating with an unpublished, narcissistic poet,” but he reminds her that a poem of his did appear in the May 1995 Harper’s. She complains that he cannot accept a single suggestion and recalls a haircut he gave her 14 years ago: “How hard is it to take half an inch off the bottom? I looked like a prison inmate after a lice scare.” He replies, “You hang on to resentment like a lint trap. If you wanted a standard mystery, you should have chosen a mystery writer.”

Well, if Lutz had chosen someone other than Hayward, the mystery might have lacked quirky allure, which derives in part from their feisty long-distance encounter. Heads You Lose is clever, charming, and the best book I have read all spring.


By Lisa Lutz and David Hayward; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $24.95; 300 pp.