MysteryPeople Q&A with THOMAS PLUCK

Thomas Pluck is one of those authors who I hope sees much success, mainly because reading will be a hell of a lot more fun if he is. He’s written several stories that can be found online. One of my favorite features 1970S African American Kung-Fu Fighter Brown Sugar Brookdale in his story for Blood & Tacos, a homage to men’s action paperbacks from that era. His novel, Blade Of Dishonor, is an update of the genre, featuring an Iraqi war veteran and former MMA fighter, Rage Cage Reeves, caught in a centuries old war between ninja and samari over an ancient sword. We caught up with Pluck to ask him a few questions.

MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for Rage Cage Reeves come about?

THOMAS PLUCK: David Cranmer of Beat to a Pulp approached me with the idea after I sent him a story about an MMA fighter called “A Glutton for Punishment,” that connected with readers. The comment section got wiped out in an upgrade, but even Lawrence Block liked it–I’m kicking myself for not taking a screenshot–and David approached me with an idea about a mixed-martial arts fighter battling ninjas over a magic sword. It didn’t grab me at first, but after some research, I learned that the most treasured of Japanese swords, handed down to the Tokugawa Shoguns, went missing at the end of World War II. That’s when it came together. I train in Kachin Bando, which is Burmese boxing and grappling, and I trained at a Shooto Dojo in Japan that all helped make Reeves the fighter he is.

MP: The book is a throwback to the action paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s. Do you have a favorite title in that genre?

TP: I like The Rat Bastards, and, of course, The Destroyer, which I came to in a roundabout way- I saw the Remo Williams movie on HBO. It’s not the best ’80s actioner, but Chiun is unforgettable. He’s so much better in the books. He’s a huge inspiration for old Butch. I liked Lawrence Block’s Tanner books, and Marc Olden’s Black Samurai, too.

MP: The fight scenes are great. As someone who is a practicing martial artist, what advice can you give about writing these kinds of scenes?

TP: I actually choreographed a few of them at the gym I train at, Asylum Fight Gym in Mahwah. My trainer Phil Dunlap loves action films, and I wanted to make the fights as realistic as possible, so class would begin with me asking, “What’s the best way to break someone’s clavicle?” My advice would be to keep the fights short. Overlong slugfests are rare, and they can be criminally boring. I took advice from Frank Bill: keep them short, brutal, and jarring. From my experience, I don’t remember much from fights, just details -like “I had my fist around his throat and then I was flat on my face with his knee in my back,”- and I tend to write that way, not from a play-by-play football game perspective.

MP: Butch’s World War II flashbacks are full of adventure, but you get a sense of the emotional toll it took on him. What did you want to convey about that war?

TP: The book is dedicated to my great-uncles, all veterans of that war. I saw the emotional toll it took on them every Sunday when we met at my grandmother’s for coffee. I feel like WWII and the Greatest Generation are slowly becoming the cowboys of the American West for our culture. They were all morally upstanding, brave, and believed in the cause. Which is a load of horseshit, as Butch would say. They were people in a war they didn’t want to fight; they wanted to be back home with their families. And, as in any war, you do some crazy things to protect the man fighting beside you. All sides did some terrible things. We don’t talk about Japan’s Unit 731 because we’re allies now. [A biological & chemical warfare research facility that conducted human experiments. ] We dehumanized each other. And it’s all too easy to do that in fiction, but I made every villain have good reason to do what he did, at least in his mind. Doesn’t justify it, and it surely doesn’t stop Reeves from killing them.

MP: You also edited a short story collection, Protectors. Can you tell us about that?

TP: Protectors is a charity anthology I edited to support PROTECT: The National Association to Protect Children. They are a non-partisan, pro-child and anti-crime nonprofit organization which lobbies for legislation that protects children from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. 100% of the proceeds from the book go to PROTECT, and I’ve donated thousands of dollars since it was published. Authors including Joe Lansdale, George Pelecanos, Andrew Vachss, Ken Bruen, Chet Williamson, Roxane Gay, Josh Stallings, Todd Robinson, Johnny Shaw, and many more contributed stories, many of which appear nowhere else- including “Spectre in the Galway Wind” by Ken Bruen, and “Runaway” by Dave White, which was included as a distinguished mystery story in The Best American Mystery Stories 2013. The book was a labor of love and continues to find readers, and I know you have some on the shelf at BookPeople. It is also available on Kobo through your store, if folks want it on their e-reader.

MP: You’re working on a book titled Bury The Hatchet. What can you divulge? It stars Jay Desmarteaux, the Cajun bruiser who stars in “Gumbo Weather,” which you so kindly chose for Crime Fiction Friday in January.

TP: Here’s the pitch: When Jay Desmarteaux walks out of prison after serving 25 years for the murder of a vicious bully, he seeks his family and follows the advice of his convict mentor: the best revenge is living well. But old friends want him to disappear, and new enemies want him dead. With his wits and fists, Jay unravels a twisted tale of small town secrets and good old New Jersey corruption. He only wanted to bury the hatchet… and now someone wants to bury him instead.
Today they’d say Jay has attention deficit disorder. I’ll just say he’s quick with his fists and deals with the consequences later. And there are always consequences. If you liked the taste of “Gumbo Weather,” he gets in a lot more jams in this one. Guess you can say he jumps out of the gumbo and into the pot of crawfish boil.

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Copies of Blade of Dishonor are available on our shelves at BookPeople and via bookpeople.com.

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Crime Fiction Friday: ‘Gumbo Weather’ by Thomas Pluck

needle-summer2012

Thomas Pluck’s Blade Of Dishonor made our Top Five Debuts of 2013. It gives Frank Bill’s Donnybrook a run for its money for the most fight scenes in one book. Pluck is also the editor of and a contributor to Protectors, a collection of over forty tales that raises money for child advocacy groups. He was recently published in Needle: A Magazine of Noir with this little piece of bayou nastiness.

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Gumbo Weather
by Thomas Pluck

The daily sun shower speckled the windshield with diamonds.

“Know what you’re thinking,” Russ said from up front, perched like a stork in a motorcycle jacket.

“Reckon you do,” Jay replied. He lounged in back, cracking his knuckles. Squinting his steely, sunken eyes and turning the diamonds into stars. He ran a hand through his shock of black hair.

“You stomp this dumb shit’s hands with your work boots, he’ll just kick the kid around instead.”

“Maybe I’ll back the car over his ankles, then.”

“Man can’t work, he can’t pay. Sally Jiggs’ll want his twenty large from your pocket.”

Three points on twenty grand meant six yards a week. Steep price to pay, Jay thought.

Their man’s name was George Fells. Back when the Saints were the Ain’ts, George had bet against them hard. They won the big one, and he’d been paying for it since. Russ called it penance for disloyalty to the home team.

The man drank at Sally’s bar on Napoleon, near the port. If they busted George in there they’d scare off the gamblers, bring too much heat. So they waited a few spots behind his car in their banged-up cab, listening to summer rain hit the roof.

* * *

Last time George Fells was late, they found him at home. A little green house off Tchoupitoulas. It was windy and cold; gumbo weather. Jay rapped on the door.

“Get the damn door,” George said from inside.

“I’m making roux.” A woman’s voice.

George sank as he recognized them at the door. He was a swarthy bayou boy like Jay. He wore a Ragin’ Cajuns sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, and showed them his back after he turned the lock.

A little blond blue-eyed boy worked Crayolas at the kitchen table, and a woman in sweats and a ponytail stirred a pot of chocolate roux at the stove. Gumbo starter; flour and oil. She had her trinity—celery, bell pepper, and onions—diced in a bowl and ready to go. The heady scent filled the kitchen.

The woman rolled her eyes as the two men came in from the cold.

“Ma’am,” Jay said, nodded. Russ smirked.

George bumped his wife’s bony hips aside as he stomped past. His son looked up, hopped off his chair, went to hug his daddy’s leg.

“Outta my way, ya little shit.” He walked right through the kid. The boy fell on his behind, little eyes went wet. He started to wail.

The boy’s momma sighed, turned off the heat. “Ruined,” she said, avoiding Jay’s eyes. As she picked the boy up, his shirt lifted, revealing leopard-spot bruises.

Jay watched the room fill with red mist. Took a step, then Russ squeezed his shoulder hard. Brought him back to the acrid odor of burning roux.

George returned with a roll of bills and a frown carved above his stubbled coal chunk of a chin.

Russ counted. “You’re a yard short.”

“You’re taking it out my boy’s mouth, you vultures.”

“That boy you use as a punching bag, you piece of shit?” Jay grabbed George’s pinky and twisted. George shrieked, fell to his knees.

“Jay,” Russ said.

“You son of a bitch,” George said.

“Yep. A 22 carat bitch she was,” Jay said. “Not half as mean as the dog who fucked her.”

Jay dragged George by the hair to the stove.

George’s eyes went wide as Jay tilted the pot toward his face. “Roux gets hot as napalm. I made the bitch stop stirring, once. Can’t remember why. Still got the scars down my back.”

“Jay, c’mon now,” Russ said.

Jay shoved George away. “Now Georgie, you go kiss the little girls and make ‘em cry. But next time you’re short on the puddin’ and pie, I’m bringing the tin snips. And if that boy’s got a mark on him—”

“How’m I gonna work? I work with my hands!”

“We know all you do is type and talk,” Jay said. “You can hunt ‘n peck with nine.” He pushed him onto the floor, gave a dead-eyed stare. “Tell your wife I’m sorry we ruined supper.” He set the pot on the stove, and they left to make their next collection.

When they cleared the book best they could, they left the day’s envelope at the bar drop. Parked the work car at Sally’s taxi stand, and headed out in Jay’s purple Challenger for steaks at Charlie’s. Charlie had needed a loan to restore after Katrina. Sally anted up, so his boys ate free.

“You can’t beat the sick out of a man like that,” Russ said.

“Sure feels good trying.”

“Just saying, our job’s to collect, not save the world. Most of ‘em are degenerate gamblers. Some worse.”

“You can sit there, knowing he’s taking it out on her and that boy?”

“I took a whipping almost every day, growing up.”

“Me too. Don’t mean we liked it.”

“It ain’t our business.”

They worked on their steaks a while.

“You take the belt to your kids?”

“Hell no. But it ain’t your business if I do.”

“Okay, then. So you think it ain’t right.”

“I don’t kick back with Early Times every night like my old man did, neither.”

Jay pointed with his fork. “What if someone made it their business? Busted up your old man?”

Russ shook his head, poked at his potatoes. “I’d have to side with my Pop. He’s my blood. What about you?”

“I told you about that. Still looking for him.”

“You gotta let that go. It’s not like he named you Sue.”

Jay laughed, took a slug of Wild Turkey.

“You got the right,” Russ said. “What he did? It was me, I’d say he needed killin’ too.” He’d seen the constellation of cigarette burns on his partner’s belly. “But the rest of us, who just came up getting knocked around? It’s more complicated.”

“Reckon so,” Jay said.

“They didn’t know better,” Russ said. “Their folks whaled on ‘em too. That’s all they knew. Don’t make it right. Not one bit. Makes it harder to hate ‘em, that’s all. Once they’re old and weak.”

Jay nodded, staring into the amber of his glass.

“Your stepfolks, they ever slap you around?”

“Not a hair on my head.”

“I know, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth.”

“Nope,” Jay said. “Slide right off like it was the Virgin Mary’s left tit.”

They shared a laugh, and bourbon too.

“Just ain’t that simple,” Russ said. “You hate what they did, but you love ‘em. So you find a good woman who holds you all night, tells you the sun shines outta your ass. She shits out a few beautiful kids for you. And you love ‘em the best you can.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Jay said. And they did. “You think George’ll whup ‘em harder, after what I done?”

“Who’s to say? You didn’t make him start. You ain’t gonna make him stop. Comes down to it, a man’s gonna do what he wants.”

* * *

That was three months back. Now there was another cold snap, and George Fells was a week late once more. He’d come in to Sally’s to bet on the Tigers game. Russ got a text from Clyde the bartender when he showed.

Jay stared into his own eyes in the rear view, then down at his hands. His step dad Poppa Andre had been good with his hands. Made a tidy living, working the beauty out of wood, making furniture. He and Aunt Angeline had fled Louisiana with him, saving Jay from that pit of hell. And they’d paid hard for it later.

Andre had told Jay to go school, to use his head, not his hands. But that hadn’t worked out. Jay had to take care of a bully at school who beat on his friends, and raped one. A mean son of a bitch who needed killing. Jay had paid for that with a quarter century in prison.

Now he tallied how he much he was willing to pay for George Fells.

He could sell the Challenger. It might cover the principal, and whatever bullshit payoff fee Sally charged. A Shylock never made it easy to quit. They’d bleed you forever, to get that weekly juice. Maybe Jay could buy a shitbox like this cab, and buy George’s loan.

Then he could slam George’s hands in the back door, and drive his wife and the boy to her kin, wherever they were. He could tell George the new vig was letting them go.

It felt about as real as the diamonds on the windshield.

George huddled against the rain in a gray hoodie. Russ rolled the window down and whistled for him. Instead, he took off.

Jay shouldered the back door open and ran. When he caught up, he yanked the strings of George’s hood closed, kneed him in the gut. Russ came up the curb to cut them off. Jay threw him in back, jumped on top, elbow first.

“Rent was due Friday, and you’re betting like a free man? Sally don’t like that.”

George coughed. “Gotta be so rough?”

“I’d rather be sitting at the bar eating oysters,” Jay said, and slapped him through the hood. “You make me run, I’m liable to be ornery.”

“Ain’t got it on me.”

“Pick a finger. Russ, get me the tin snips.”

“I got it at home,” George said. “No need for that kind of talk.”

Russ double-parked in front of the green little house. Was getting to know the way by heart.

Same small kitchen with the steel-legged table and white peeled floor. Gumbo simmered on the stove. George’s wife looked up with a yellow ring round her eye, as they shuffled in from the rain. Boy was on her knee, reading from a Little Golden Book. He eyed his father quick, then went back to his book.

“Two weeks’ juice, now,” Russ said.

George limped in back for the cash.

Jay whispered to the woman. “You got kin, ma’am? This ain’t right.”

“Mind your business,” she hissed, and didn’t look up.

George came out with an ugly little pistol.

“Easy now,” Russ said, and raised his hands.

“George, what are you—”

He cracked the butt down on her head. “Shut the hell up!”

She moaned and low-walked out the room with her wailing son in tow.

Jay kept quiet. Hands up. Stepped away, felt the heat of the gumbo pot at his back.

“You do this, you’re bringing hell down on your whole family.”

“This how it’s gonna be, boys. Russ, I know you got children. You stay.” George aimed the gun at him. Kept his distance. “Jay? You’re gonna hit the money drop.”

“You crazy? What you think that’s gonna do? That’s Sally’s money. You’re good as dead.”

“If you catch up to me.”

“It won’t be us, George. They’ll be worse. Don’t think they won’t shoot that boy of yours.”

“Jay, get goin’ now.”

“Russ has the piece, Georgie.”

“You think it’s real funny, callin’ me that?” He stepped forward, stuck the little revolver into Jay’s eye socket. “Maybe you come back, we’ll all be dead. Ain’t no other way out from under this rock!”

Russ’s hand drifted into the coat for his pistol. Jay saw it with his good eye. He wondered if George saw him look, if that was why he turned and shot Russ in the throat.

Jay dumped the soup pot on him. George screamed, firing into the ceiling as he clawed his bubbling face. Jay swung the pot back and forth by the handle, clanging off the man’s skull. When George collapsed, Jay hammered his face until it resembled a rotten cantaloupe.

Russ stared at the ceiling, haloed in a widening ruby pool. He mouthed a few silent words before his eyes went blank.

“I’m sorry, partner.”

Jay slipped the .45 and the payment book from Russ’s jacket.

He left the woman moaning in her parlor. Dumped the cab in Gert Town with the keys in the ignition, and took a streetcar back to the Challenger.

* * *

“Clyde, send him in.”

Jay shuffled in with his head down, hands in the pockets of his pea coat.

Salvatore Gingerelli held court in back of his bar, hunkered over a poker table littered with empty oyster shells and fat envelopes. He looked like a track-suited linebacker gone to seed, well-tanned, a fat cigar in his jeweled hand. His two favorite earners, Philly Lasardo and Lee Walker, flanked him.

Philly had a thick mane dyed black and wore glasses on a chain around his neck. He counted bills, and didn’t look up. Lee turned his pinched face toward Jay without a word. The iceman never said much. His eyes said enough.

“What’s on your mind, Jay?” Sally exhaled a dragon plume of Montecristo smoke.

“Russ is dead, Sal. George Fells shot him. I took care of him.”

Jay took the book out of his jacket, let the dog-eared pages flop among the seashells.

Sally nodded. “Sit down, Jay. Let’s talk about this.”

Jay hunched into his seat, chewing his lip. They already knew, that he was sure.

Sally took a decanter of scotch from the private bar behind him, poured it into two cut crystal rocks glasses. He nudged one toward Jay, who took a gulp.

“Anyone see you?”

“No. Wife and kid were in the other room.”

“So she knows. Lee, why don’t you call our friend at the 2nd precinct. Have him send someone friendly over.”

Lee nodded, flipped open a black phone, and walked to the back.

Sally dipped the chewed end of his cigar into his scotch. Scratched at his leg.

“George worked at the port, didn’t he?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good life insurance. Let her slide a few weeks. Get the funeral taken care of.”

Jay rocked in his chair, nodded. Fingered his keys in his pocket.

“Sal, she was asking. What would it take to pay off the principal?”

The big man laughed. “Whatever she’s got and twenty large more. Her husband killed a good soldier.”

Jay nodded. “He was a good man.” He stared at the shucked oyster shells a moment, then slid an envelope from his pocket. “Today’s bag.” He handed it to Philly, then stuck his hands in his pockets again.

“He was,” Sally said. “It’s our life. It is what it is.”

Philly opened the envelope, and frowned at the newsprint inside.

Jay fired the .45 under the table twice. Sal’s cigar dropped, the rest of him froze solid.

Dirty bills flew like feathers as Philly fell backward in his chair. Lee, a wiry old lion, leaped across the table at Jay and they tumbled to the checkered floor. He straddled him and wrenched Jay’s gun hand, the meat of his thumb against the hammer.

Jay reached up and stuck two fingers in Lee’s mouth. Yanked hard, gave the dour man a bloody smile. When Lee clutched his ruined face, Jay shot him through the hands. Philly wailed at the back door, pawing the bolt. Jay pushed himself up, Lee’s limp body rolling off him.

A shotgun barrel broke the outline of the doorway to the bar.

“Clyde,” Jay hollered. “Drop that thing, you dumb shit. Before I shoot you through the damn plaster.”

“You gonna shoot me anyway!”

Jay shot twice through the wall. The shotgun dropped. He never learned if he hit Clyde or not. Sally’s head hit the oyster shells, thick lips bubbling red. Snubby .38 in his hand. Jay put another round in his bald spot.

Out back, he shot Philly between the shoulder blades. Took the keys to his Cadillac from his pocket.

* * *

Cruising over Lake Pontchartrain, Jay boomeranged the gun toward the dirty water. He’d miss the Challenger’s muscle.

His father would get to live out his days whoring and stubbing out cigarettes in some backwater saloon. But Jay would leave the fat envelope with Russ’s wife, and whoever took over Sally’s book would find George Fell’s number marked paid in full.

BLADE OF DISHONOR: Fun, Fast Action

blade of dishonor

For my generation, our pulp fiction was the men’s action paperbacks of the ’70s and ’80s. Series like The Executioner, The Destroyer, or my favorite title, The Rat Bastards, were full of action, beautiful women, and the toughest of tough guys. The stories ranged from vigilantes, martial artsists, to World War II commandos. Thomas Pluck lovingly crams in as many of the tropes as he can in his epic update of the genre, Blade Of Dishonor.

Our hero is Rage Cage Reeves, a former MMA fighter returning from service in Afghanistan. He stays with his grandfather, Butch, a World War Two vet who lives above his army surplus store. After a bar fight where we see Rage Cage in action (and where he meets up with his old flame, Tara, a sexy and sarcastic ambulance driver), a Japanese businessman makes an offer for Butch’s store. When Butch refuses, an attempt is made on his life and the store is burnt to the ground.

Along with Tara, Reeves is on the run and out for revenge. It’s all tied to a war between samurai and ninjas over a sword Butch gave Reeves. We’re given flashbacks of Butch’s war years as a commando and how he got the blade, as Reeves’ journey of revenge takes him to the far east and the ultimate cage match.

This book is The Raiders Of The Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks. It has everything we love about those old pulp classics, fast pacing, tough beautiful women, macho guys, codes of honor, and a lot of action, all done with a high level of execution. Pluck gives us tons of gratuitous fight scenes, yet motivates it so well it never comes off as such. A martial artist himself, he delivers the blow by blow with a visceral feel. He also knows when to give a humorous aside, giving a nod to the reader. His love of the genre acts as a great undercurrent to the story.

Blade Of Dishonor is the most unpretentious book I’ve read in a long time. It simply wants to entertain and pulls out all the stops to do so. I hope Thomas Pluck realizes that many of these pulp books had a hundred to a series.

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Copies of Blade of Dishonor are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com