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From The Blog
May 26, 2017
Putting My Hard Work to Work
L. F. Robertson
May 25, 2017
Page to Screen: Nightmare Alley
Brian Greene
May 18, 2017
Discovering a Sister in Crime: Eleanor T. Bland
Stephane Dunn
May 16, 2017
Q&A with Court Merrigan, Author of The Broken Country
David Cranmer and Court Merrigan
May 15, 2017
Adventures in Research, Part I: Time of Departure
Douglas Schofield
Showing posts by: Thomas Pluck click to see Thomas Pluck's profile
Apr 26 2017 11:00am

A Field Guide to Sociopaths, Psychopaths, Narcissists, and Other Abusers: An Interview with Zak Mucha

Fiction is about getting inside the heads of people, whether they are like us or unlike us. When writers depict a sociopath, how close can they get? Is it possible to represent a mental state we can’t experience? Even therapists and psychologists can get it wrong. When we are talking to a person who, by definition, lies for their own benefit, can they let enough of their true self slip through their mask so that an observer can truly know how they think?

Zak Mucha, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who worked on the streets of Chicago treating mentally ill homeless clients before he moved into private practice. He is the author of Emotional Abuse: a Manual for Self-Defense, which explains the behavior of emotional abusers of all kinds and, more importantly, how to deflect their attacks. It is a short, pragmatic, and concise book that explains how to recognize different types of systematic diminishment and the expected response. 

Last year, I asked my fellow writers what frightened them more: someone without empathy or conscience, or someone who has these qualities but willfully chooses to ignore them to get what they want. Part of the question was to prod at the current fascination with the psychopath or sociopath.

Fictional examples include the social climber killer in Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying, Amazing Amy from Gone Girl, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, Jimmy the Gent from Goodfellas, and so on. Then, there are characters who seem to successfully wrestle with their conscience, such as Tony from The Sopranos and Walter White from Breaking Bad.

I asked Mr. Mucha about these characters to see which, if any, get it “right.”

[Read the full interview below!]

Apr 12 2017 11:00am

A Dangerous Dance: A Conversation with Alex Segura & Thomas Pluck

You’d be hard-pressed to find crime-fiction protagonists more different than Jay Desmarteaux and Pete Fernandez. One is a grizzled ex-con, the other a washed up ex-journalist struggling to be a PI. And while they’re not really running in the same social circles, both come from the minds of two crime-fiction contemporaries in Thomas Pluck and Alex Segura.

The 1st Jay novel, Bad Boy Boogie, is out now, and the 3rd Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery, Dangerous Ends, hit on April 11. We grabbed both authors and stuck them in a virtual room together to talk about their influences, how their series came to be, and what’s in store for their characters in the pages of their new releases.

[Read the full conversation below!]

Mar 29 2017 1:00pm

Review: Conviction by Julia Dahl

Conviction by Julia Dahl is the 3rd book in the Rebekah Roberts series.

The 3rd book in Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series makes me feel like a schmendrick for not having read the first two books, Invisible City and Run You Down. Good thing that Conviction works flawlessly as a standalone—and a potent reminder of what crime fiction can accomplish when a writer is at the top of her game. 

Daringly set in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, Dahl alternates between the violent Brooklyn of the 90s and the gentrified, trendy borough of today. Roberts is a journalist at the least-respected paper in the city, angling for a big story that will get her noticed for her investigative reporting. She chats with a true crime blogger who has a letter from an inmate who’s been locked up for twenty years: DeShawn Davis, convicted of the brutal murder of his foster parents and their toddler daughter. 

It was an infamous crime at a time when Brooklyn racked up four or five murders a day and an overworked justice system handed down harsh sentences to “superpredators”—many of whom have since been exonerated. DeShawn’s story doesn’t sound like any “I didn’t do it” prisoner letter. He recanted his confession, plead not guilty, and was punished for not taking a plea.

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of Conviction...]

Mar 15 2017 10:00am

Bad Boy Boogie: New Excerpt

Thomas Pluck

Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck is the 1st book in the new Jay Desmarteaux Crime Thriller series (available March 20, 2017).

Read an excerpt from Bad Boy Boogie, then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of the 1st Jay Desmarteaux Crime Thriller!

When Jay Desmarteaux steps out of from prison after serving twenty-five years for murdering a vicious school bully, he tries to follow his convict mentor’s advice: the best revenge is living well.

But questions gnaw at his gut: Where have his folks disappeared to? Why do old friends want him gone? And who wants him dead?

Teaming with his high school sweetheart turned legal Valkyrie, a hulking body shop bodybuilder, and a razor-wielding gentleman’s club house mother, Jay will unravel a tangle of deception all the way back to the bayous where he was born. With an iron-fisted police chief on his tail and a ruthless mob captain at his throat, he’ll need his wits, his fists, and his father’s trusty Vietnam war hatchet to hack his way through a toxic jungle of New Jersey corruption that makes the gator-filled swamps of home feel like the shallow end of the kiddie pool.

[Read an excerpt from Bad Boy Boogie...]

Feb 23 2017 4:00pm

Reviewing the Queue: Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)

When discussing the oeuvre of Whoopi Goldberg, it’s important to remember that she started off with an incredible performance in The Color Purple. While it hasn’t always been downhill from there, it took a long time for her to get on her comedic feet in the movie business. It wasn’t until Sister Act that she found the persona people wanted. Her stand-up, one-woman-show special for HBO was a knockout that showed off her acting chops and versatility while also exploring social issues.

Unfortunately, the offers she received and choices she made didn’t always live up to that promise—like Burglar, the abysmal adaptation of Lawrence Block’s beloved Bernie Rhodenbarr novel, which was really not her fault. And let’s not even mention her cop-buddy-dinosaur disaster Theodore Rex. But good movies are sometimes overlooked, like the cop flick Fatal Beauty and one of my favorite computer espionage comedies, Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

[I was born in a cross-fire hurricane...]

Feb 6 2017 3:00pm

Review: The Freedom Broker by K. J. Howe

The Freedom Broker by K. J. Howe is the 1st book in a new series featuring the elite kidnap and ransom (K&R) specialist Thea Paris (available February 7, 2017).

I love a book where the author delves into a subject and learns everything about it, then crafts a story around it. David Morrell does this often; he’s learned to fly a plane to make scenes believable. Megan Abbott studied pro cheerleaders and gymnasts when writing her two latest. And now, K. J. Howe has dug into the terrifying world of Kidnap Rescue, where government and private agents work with families faced with the unimaginable: the loss of a loved one held for ransom by people who will not hesitate to kill or maim them for profit. 

Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State depicted this from the point of view of a victim kidnapped in Haiti and explored how she dealt with both her captors and her family during and after the crisis, which left her changed for life. In The Freedom Broker we get into the heads of the kidnappers, the family of the victim, and the people who rescue them.

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of The Freedom Broker...]

Jan 20 2017 1:00pm

Take Me Down to Kickback City: The Noir of Ian Rankin and Rory Gallagher

I didn’t even know who Rory Gallagher was until I got a postcard from Ken Bruen.

To my shame, my knowledge of Irish music is limited. I loved the Pogues but didn’t realize Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy came from the Emerald Isle until I should’ve known better. I lived a bizarrely exposed and yet sheltered life. I knew that certain Italian mobsters liked to spend the night with transsexual prostitutes before I had listened to the Beatles other than the White Album.

My grandfather emigrated from Ireland, but thanks to the hip bottle of Jameson he drank every day of his retirement, I could barely understand a word he slurred. I lost that part of my heritage, and we mostly bonded by watching pro wrestling and boxing matches while sitting on the carpet, our backs against the couch, playing with my uptight grandmother’s two Yorkies. I inherited a shillelagh he brought back after a trip “home” to give the family homestead to friends they took in during the Depression. But like many third-generation immigrants in America, I had lost touch with my “roots” and was eager to reacquaint myself, so I was a diehard fan of the Pogues.

[Phil Lynott is God...]

Dec 2 2016 2:00pm

Review: In Sunlight or In Shadow, Edited by Lawrence Block

In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block, is a newly-commissioned anthology of seventeen superbly-crafted stories inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper (Available December 6, 2016).

Edward Hopper is probably the first—and possibly the only—famous visual artist you’ll think of when discussing noir. His Nighthawks encapsulates the essence of the genre—gloomy, alienated, down on your luck. So how come no one thought of an anthology based on Edward Hopper’s paintings before?

It took Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Lawrence Block to take the call, and a herd of the best writers around came running when asked if they would like to contribute. Stephen King. Joyce Carol Oates. Michael Connolly. Lee Child. Megan Abbott. Craig Ferguson…? Trust me, he can write. There’s not a bad story in the bunch, and I’m not even talking about a forgettable one. And, there’s quite a bit of range, which is difficult with a themed anthology—I should know, I’ve edited three of them. 

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of In Sunlight or In Shadow...]

Nov 10 2016 5:30pm

The Peepland Times Square Tour with Christa Faust

Hard Case Crime—look for the yellow label, the label of quality!—has expanded into comic books. And they did it with a bang, with titles from noir kingpins Christa Faust and Gary Phillips as well as director Walter Hill.

Triggerman #1 by Hill—best known for The Driver, The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs., Hard Times, and The Long Riders­—is out now. Peepland, by Faust & Phillips, streets on October 12th. I was lucky enough to get a peep at the New York Comic Con special issue, and these two noir vets capture the feel of lost, dirty ‘80s Manhattan like it was yesterday.

Faust was at NYCC to promote the comic with Hard Case honcho Charles Ardai, and I had the pleasure of touring Times Square with the author. Faust is not only a paperback pulp historian and famed writer, but also a former peep show girl. What better tour guide than this daring Angel?

Faust is best known for her Angel Dare series for Hard Case Crime—Money Shot, which kicks off in the California porn world; Choke Hold, which dives into the seamy underbelly of mixed-martial arts; and the upcoming The Get-Off, which follows Angel into the violent rodeo circuit.

[Take the tour!]

Nov 1 2016 1:00pm

Review: Leadfoot by Eric Beetner

Leadfoot by Eric Beetner is the 2nd fast and furious thriller featuring the McGraws—a family who will transport anything you require and won't ask any questions.

The Dukes of Hazzard. “Thunder Road.” White Lightning. The moonshine-running driver hitting the backroads with suped-up Detroit iron and a trunkful of corn liquor, racing the revenuers, the sheriffs, and the competition…

The Rumrunners series by Eric Beetner takes this into Iowa corn country with the McGraw family, who’ve got hard driving in their blood. Unlike the archetype of The Driver as a silent motorhead who is magic behind the wheel and under the hood but can’t or won’t deal with people well—as in classics Sallis’s Drive and Vachss’s The Getaway Man—in Beetner’s hands, Cal McGraw is a country-fried combo of Parker with a little smart-ass Grofield in there.

[Is it weird that I'm now hungry?]

Oct 5 2016 1:00pm

Review: Stranded by Bracken MacLeod

Stranded by Bracken MacLeodStranded by Bracken MacLeod features an apocalyptic storm and a crew's fight to survive the elements (Available October 4, 2016).

Stranded by Bracken MacLeod is a gripping existential horror thriller that will appeal to crime fans. Though it is compared to classics like The Thing and The Mist—and it does have the creepy base elements that make those stories work, such as paranoia of your fellow man when trapped in a survival situation beyond your comprehension—to me, it read like a thriller with just a touch of the supernatural. But that touch is disturbing and puts the reader just as off-balance as it does the characters who must confront it. The author of Mountain Home focuses his sharp eye for depicting humans crumbling under pressure to a colder, unforgiving landscape.

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of Stranded...]

Sep 16 2016 3:00pm

Things to Do in Carcosa When You’re Dead

If you’re going to Bouchercon in New Orleans, I’m afraid you won’t have any luck finding the King in Yellow or Lost Carcosa. But you can still have a lot of fun exploring a state known for its criminal history. Louisiana was the perfect setting for the first season of True Detective because you can believe corruption is so expected that Rust Cohle’s nihilism and misanthropy feel like the only normal reaction.

I’ve loved Louisiana and its culture ever since I drove down after college to see the places I read about in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels—and after dinner at Mulate’s and wandering down Bourbon Street I was hooked. I worked down at the port there a while, visiting local haunts like Charley’s Steakhouse—featured in my story “Gumbo Weather,” which is in the Bouchercon 2016 anthology Blood on the Bayou, available for order at Down & Out Books or at the convention. My wife is from Baton Rouge, and we met in Manhattan by pure chance. But maybe her sassy ways appealed to me because of Mr. Burke and my visits to the state.

So, if you find yourself in New Orleans, here are my suggestions for a tour of the state for the criminally minded:

[Take the tour...]

Sep 16 2016 10:00am

Protectors 2: Heroes

Thomas Pluck and Holly West

The good folks who run Bouchercon have announced the 2016 Anthony Award nominees, and I’m thrilled beyond belief that Protectors 2: Heroes is not only nominated for an Anthony Award for best anthology, but that Holly West’s story “Don’t Fear the Ripper” from it has also been nominated for best short story. It has also been chosen to appear in a Ripper anthology from Mysterious Press; thank you so much, Holly, for writing the story and letting me publish it in the anthology.

Protectors 2: Heroes benefits The National Association to Protect Children, specifically the HERO Corps, which trains wounded veterans to assist federal and local law enforcement to hunt sexual predators online. Some of the contributors include: Joyce Carol Oates, David Morrell, Hilary Davidson, Laird Barron, Joelle Charbonneau, Reed Farrel Coleman, Angel Luis Colon, Charles de Lint, SJ Rozan, Harlan Ellison®, Wayne Dundee, Alison Arngrim (you may know her as “Nellie Olsen” from Little House on the Prairie), Bracken MacLeod, former ThugLit editor Allison Glasgow, Josh Stallings, Chad Eagleton, Martyn Waites, Gary Philips, Scott Adlerberg, Linda Rodriguez, Rios de la Luz, Joe Lansdale, Graham Wynd, Alex Segura, Albert Tucher, Clare Toohey, Laura K. Curtis, Andrew Vachss, and Anthony nominee Chris Irvin. It’s a monster of a book to fight monsters in our midst.

Holly is the author of two historical mysteries, Mistress of Fortune and Mistress of Lies, which were gripping and gritty enough to make me care about whether an English king lived or died—which is tough for the grandson of Irish immigrants. They’re great noir yarns. Holly was gracious enough to let me share an excerpt from “Don’t Fear the Ripper,” which you can find below.

One of the other anthology contenders is ThugLit Presents Cruel Yule: A Holiday Anthology, in which my story “Letters to Santa” appears. Johnny Shaw’s Chingon tale “Feliz Navidead” is in there, and also nominated for best short story. Also nominated is Erin Mitchell’s “Old Hands,” from Dark City Lights: New York Stories (ed. by Lawrence Block), in which my story “The Big Snip” appears. Snip wasn’t chosen for an Anthony, but it was picked for The Year’s Best Crime & Mystery Stories 2016, edited by Kristine K. Rusch, so I’m pretty thrilled about that, too.

The Anthonys are a fan award and they mean a lot. It’s an honor to be nominated along with so many champions of the genre and also good friends, like Josh Stallings’s Young Americans—my favorite heist novel of recent vintage—Joelle Charbonneau’s Need, Rob Hart’s New Yorked, Hank Phillippi Ryan’s What You See, Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind, Adrian McKinty’s Gun Street Girl, and Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone.

As they say, it’s an honor to be nominated. But if you enjoyed Protectors 2: Heroes and are going to the convention, your vote will help sell the book and generate more revenue for Protect: The National Association to Protect Children. The book’s sales have generated over $4500 in donations so far. Let’s keep it going for the HERO Corps!

[Read an excerpt of “Don't Fear the Ripper,” nominated for Best Short Story]

Sep 12 2016 11:00am

Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

I wouldn’t say there’s been a dearth of good crime films lately; we haven’t had a renaissance, but we have gotten some good ones. It’s not a genre that is considered a genre—crime can fit into horror (Don’t Breathe), it can be a thriller (Gone Girl), or it can be a drama (At Close Range). But, Hell or High Water is one of the first to tackle the recession hitting the working class. The adaptation of George V. Higgins’s novel Cogan’s Trade (aka Killing Them Softly) touched on it, but kept its characters firmly in the underworld. This one, written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie, the British director of the excellent prison film Starred Up, pulls few punches when it comes to giving its antiheroes a motive.

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of Hell or High Water...]

Sep 6 2016 4:30pm

13 Books to Read If You Loved Stranger Things

Great news! They’ve confirmed a Season 2 of Stranger Things.

I loved the first season of the Netflix original series. Only eight episodes long, but it never feels rushed. The Duffer Brothers did a great job giving us characters we care about and a monster that truly terrified me.

It's set in the early '80s and begins with four young kids playing a Dungeons & Dragons game. After the game ends, one never makes it home. The cast is excellent, the police are not jerks or incompetent, and even the bullies have depth. It's not perfect, but it's very close. And, it doesn't have a smarmy facade of nostalgia, the early '80s were good and bad. A little anachronistic in behavior, but that's expected.

It borrows and riffs off many beloved stories in the horror genre: Stephen King’s Firestarter, It and “The Mist,” Carrie and its clone The Fury, and the magnificent coming-of-age film Stand by Me based on King’s short story, “The Body.” It also draws on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Poltergeist, Akira, the video game Silent Hill, “final girl” slasher films, and even Sailor Moon. There are nods to Aliens, and the nerdy kids (who all ring perfectly true) reference things they love like The Hobbit and the Star Wars movies. And, their favorite teacher is a clueless science nerd who thinks a great date is watching The Thing on VHS.

I’ve read some other “if you like…” lists that mention everything from Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” to Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, which are both great reads but really don’t evoke anything like what you get from Stranger Things.

So, here are 13 books I've read that reminded me of the show, in a good way:

[See what made the list!]

Aug 30 2016 2:30pm

Review: The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke

The Jealous Kind by James Lee Burke is a Holland Family novel and an atmospheric, coming-of-age story set in 1952 Texas, as the Korea War rages (Available August 30, 2016).

My experience with the jellyfish seemed to characterize my life. No matter how sun-spangled the day might seem, I always felt a sense of danger. It wasn’t imaginary, either. The guttural roar of Hollywood mufflers on a souped-up Ford coupe, a careless glance at the guys in ducktail haircuts and suede stomps and pegged pants called drapes, and in seconds you could be pounded into pulp. Ever watch a television portrayal of the fifties? What a laugh.

Hold on, James Lee Burke is taking on the Fifties. He is best known for his Dave Robicheaux series set in modern Louisiana, but some of his greatest works have been his recent standalone novels about the Holland family. Hackberry Holland has his own series, but these involve Weldon Holland and Aaron Broussard, distant relatives of the Texas lawman who brought in John Wesley Hardin.

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of The Jealous Kind...]

Aug 29 2016 10:15am

The Night Of Series Finale: “The Call of the Wild” Episode Review

My neighbors Shannon and Natanya agreed with me: what we saw of The Night Of was Naz’s interpretation of events. The show lingered on surveillance footage to remind us to only trust what we see with our own eyes. But, in the end, it didn’t matter. That was not the story.

The story was, once again, crime fiction taking the Dead Girl Trope and using Andrea as a catalyst for a story about how she ruined a young man’s life by getting savagely murdered after luring him with sex and drugs. So, the undertaker Mr. Day was the one who was right in the end.

[The undertaker always gets the last laugh...]

Aug 21 2016 10:00pm

The Night Of: “Ordinary Death” Episode Review

I’ll take evidence over a confession, every time.

Seven episodes, and we have no idea who stabbed Andrea to death in the bedroom. It’s to the show’s credit that we keep tuning in. The story is strong, but the beams are built entirely of character:

  • Chandra, the strong but unsure lawyer who gives it her all this episode. 
  • John Stone, who no longer stands on feet of clay (or eczema, for that matter).
  • Freddy, the boxer-turned-criminal who runs Rikers Island. (Even though it’s a jail, they treat it like it’s a prison where he’s a long-timer, but I’ll let that pass. Suspects have lingered in Rikers for up to 3 years before trial, but it’s unlikely Freddy would get transferred there from upstate prison, even if he had a buddy pin a murder on him and he’s waiting for trial). 
  • And, of course, the mysterious Naz, whose good boy exterior has transformed into a tattooed, head-shaved, heroin-smoking, hard-faced man over the months, with a street name of “Sinbad.” 

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of “Ordinary Death”...]

Aug 14 2016 10:00pm

The Night Of: “Samson and Delilah” Episode Review

Judges 16. That’s all a man needs to know.

The long-awaited trial begins midway through the episode, and it is oddly anticlimactic. We’ve seen hints of strife and trial by media—a Nancy Grace lookalike eviscerates Naz whenever there’s a TV in the shot; his brother vandalizes the school because he’s getting bullied with no recourse; Mrs. Khan is let go from her job for the same reason and no one wants to hire her; and his father is still without his cab.

The final flourishes of the investigation are the meat of the story, and we get an unsettling look at the reality of the justice system. On both sides, we’re getting the best that overworked but dedicated people can give us. Once a suspect is charged, the investigation focuses on conviction. Last time, we saw D.A. Helen Weiss coaching a statement from the medical examiner; this time around, she’s getting a doctor who’ll testify that the cocktail of drugs Naz was on wouldn’t necessarily put him to sleep. He might have been able go on a Manson-style knife spree. 

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of “Samson and Delilah”...]

Aug 7 2016 10:00pm

The Night Of: “Season of the Witch” Episode Review

You got some secrets in you. And some rage. I like it.

The defense attorney has been pilloried since the dawn of the court system. The advocate of the Devil. And today, we still disrespect them as if their job is to keep criminals free instead of providing citizens accused of a crime with their constitutional right of a defense. Stone speaks in front of his son’s high school class and they vilify him. “Would you defend Hitler?” “My Dad’s a deputy, he puts these guys away, you try to set them free.”

The concept of innocent until proven guilty eludes us. We want vengeance, not justice. What is justice? We can’t bring back the dead or erase the scars predators leave on a victim’s soul. And, even with the best defense, someone who is as innocent as Naz appears to be faced with a plea deal: 15 years, or life in prison if he dares proclaim himself not guilty.

[Read Thomas Pluck's review of The Night Of: “Season of the Witch”]