Reviews During Wartime

Happy new year!

I’m getting over the flu, which I contracted while researching the next Jay Desmarteaux novel, wandering around Iberia and Vermilion Parishes in Louisiana. I visited the grave of bluesman Slim Harpo and the Louisiana Capitol Building, where Huey Long was assassinated. You can read about it at Do Some Damage, where I call it Research Without a Cause.

Which answers the question to the first review of Life During Wartime, my new story collection, up at Out of the Gutter: “Amazingly, the dialogue, settings, and situations all ring true. Either Pluck has done some serious research or he’s lived a life on the move!”
I love to travel, and I love writing stories that use what I see and learn from new places and people. If you haven’t pre-ordered Life During Wartime, Down & Out Books has a 60% discount on the ebooks. I will be signing the book at Mysterious Bookshop and Watchung Booksellers in February, and I will put the updates on my Events page. If you can’t get one in person, Down & Out Books has all the links to your favorite suppliers.

Life During Wartime Paperback

Some of my research had a cause, like dropping into Vermilionville, a living Acadian village rather like Colonial Williamsburg, stopping by to see the Evangeline Tree in St. Martinsville, a memorial to Longfellow’s poem of the same name, based on people who lived in the area.  One of them is name checked in James Lee Burke’s latest novel Robicheaux, which I reviewed for Criminal Element. I did stop to eat at Victor’s Cafeteria where Dave Robicheaux and Cletus Purcell grab breakfast in New Iberia. You read about my adventures in Cajun Country at SleuthSayers, and you can also see my pictures on Instagram, on Facebook, or Twitter.

Another story that drew from my travels is “Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind,” in Alive in Shape and Color. I’ve received a lot of emails about this one, which Liz French of Library Journal called “stunning,” and the reviewer at the New York Times found disturbing enough to call me out by name. Robert Lopresti loved it but wasn’t sure if it was “crime”, but I think murders at an archaeological dig in Germany are criminal enough.  So, if you haven’t jumped on Alive in Shape and Color, you don’t want to miss it. Like its Edward Hopper-themed forebear, it’s making a splash.

Life During Wartime events! Don’t say you weren’t warned…

Thursday, February 8th at 7:00 PM: The official launch of my story collection Life During Wartime at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair! Snacks and a brief reading and a Q&A.

Wednesday, February 21st at 6:30 PM: Life During Wartime  and Slaughterhouse Blues signing event with Nick Kolakowski at The Mysterious Bookshop. Join me and Nick for a night of noir. One week after Valentine’s Day, your heart will have recovered.

Thursday, March 8th at 6:00 PM: A Montclair Authors Meet & Greet at Sotheby’s, 32 Valley Rd, Montclair, NJ. Come join us for wine and cheese and rub suede elbow patches with local Montclair authors! I’ll be in the corner eating all the Gruyere.

beyond copacetic

If you haven’t read my review of James Lee Burke’s The Jealous Kind, it’s one of his best. You know who read it? Mr Burke himself. It’s an honor to hear from a literary hero of mine. He commented on my Books page.

2016-09-07 15_03_06-Thomas Pluck _ unflinching fiction with heart.jpg

Happy New Year – 30 Days – Big Update – I’ll Be Back

Wishing you all a happy new year.

And with that, I’ve decided to stay off social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) for the month of January. I’m also giving up beer for those 30 days–yes, really–so I’ll be off Untappd as well. I’m only mentioning it so my internet coffee klatch does not become concerned.

I will likely still post here– I’m hosting Noir at the Bar NYC with several writers from Broken River Books on Jan 25th, and I’ll want to spread the word. And I’m still social media editor for PROTECT, so I will be posting stories to our accounts there. I’m itching to share news, such as the recent discovery that Ebola patient zero of the recent outbreak was probably infected by bats, which vindicates Richard Preston’s reporting for The Hot Zone, which pointing to Tikrit Cave as the source, back in the ’90s. There’s also news that “rescue dogs” are now in high demand as trophies, so much that stray dogs from other States and even other countries are being imported (some with endemic rabies). There’s a story brewing in me about that, and it won’t be pretty.

Recent movies and books I’ve enjoyed. Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke. Even though he does something that made me loathe Chelsea Cain’s One Kick- he lets early child abuse turn a character into a killer/super ninja/etc- he is so deft with character that the story is redeemed. There’s so much more going on, and his fury so well focused, that I forgave him this trespass. But writers, listen up. Child abuse alone does not turn you into a serial killer, a gibbering mental case, or a superhero. Nor does it lock you into the “cycle of abuse,” or make you want to personally execute every predator you see. People who’ve been abused can be all those things, but the majority are not. Those our are projections, of how we would deal with such unfathomable cruelty. Certainly many psychopaths experienced severe abuse at an early age, which blocked any formation of empathy, but it is infinitely more intriguing that most victims of abuse do not become killers or abusers themselves. That is the power of even the dimmest scintilla of human empathy. Don’t use child abuse as a shortcut. Burke almost did, but managed to make a self-destructive character into a fully fleshed human being, instead of a collection of impulses leading to “edgy” and unbelievable plot points, which is what I thought of One Kick before I threw my Kindle across the room (into a couch).

the-collectorSpeaking of psychopaths, I watched the 1965 version of The Collector with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, which was quite chilling, and managed to keep a razor wire of tension throughout. Next I’ll read the novel. I also read A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines, a rightfully lauded masterpiece of Southern racial relations, which dances from character to character in Rashomon-like fashion, and offers a glimmer of hope at the end. It’s set near Baton Rouge, which I recently visited, and I enjoyed recognizing the unique Louisiana culture. I’ll be moving down there one day. It’s corrupt and swampy and has great food, so it’s closer to New Jersey than you think. If Ernest Gaines isn’t a pseudonym, it should be. I’m eager to read more of his work.

I also enjoyed Bon Cop, Bad Cop, a Canadian buddy-cop movie that I can best describe as Hot Fuzz meets Strange Brew. It’s funny, silly, and simply a blast. Pitting a snobby Toronto cop (Col Feore) and a scruffy Quebecois officer vs. psycho terrorist killer hunting those who besmirch the glory of Canadian hockey, it’s always “Long Wait” on Netflix, but definitely worth waiting to see. Great fun.

bon-cop-bad-cop_huard_feoreAlso reading Circus Parade by Jim Tully, an early hardboiled stylist who wrote of riding the rails and as here, circus carny life, before shuffling off to Hollywood and then obscurity. Let’s just say that his circus tales ring much truer than Water for Elephants did, even though Sara Gruen got a lot right, and wrote a very enjoyable, if maudlin tale. This one’s influence on Hammett, Hemingway, and others is obvious and it’s worth reading, if like me, you dig hobo narratives.

On the writing front, I have stories in upcoming collections:

“The Big Snip,” in Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block for Three Rooms Press, a collection of New York City stories. This is available for pre-order.

“The Cronus Club,” in Dana Kabel’s Kannibal Cookbook, from Out of the Gutter. No release date, but I’ve read the story at several readings and according to the audience, it’s quite a doozy.

And I wrote an introduction to the Valancourt Books reissue of Gerald Kersh’s novella collection Clock Without Hands, one of his best. I found Kersh through Harlan Ellison, which led to this infamous letter, and eventually also led to me writing this foreword. Having my name beside Kersh’s is quite an honor. More on this when the book is available.

I’ll also be writing short articles for Criminal Element and sharing them here. I won’t be posting here just to post, as that has the same lure of instant validation that makes social media appeal to me. See you in the comments.

I’ll be back…

I'll be back - Terminator

Feast Day of Fools

Feast Day of Fools: A Novel (Hackberry Holland)

James Lee Burke tells great stories about big characters. This is my first time reading of Sheriff Hackberry Holland, a Korean war vet and Texas lawman guarding a beautiful and blasted landscape on the border of Texas and Mexico. A kidnapped intelligence agent escapes from a brutal coyote who wanted to sell him to al Qaeda, and the Feds, a Russian arms dealer, and “Preacher” Jack Collins, a tommygun-toting force of fate converge on Hack, his deputy Pam Tibbs, and Ms. Ling, a Chinese woman the migrants call “La Magdalena,” who helped the agent cross. The story gripped me by the guts, and Mr. Burke’s lush yet quick-flowing prose kept me re-reading passages to savor them before I moved on. I’ve been an avid devoured of his heartfelt fiction since Black Cherry Blues, and after a hiatus, this book made me feel foolish that I’d ever stopped. Burke is as talented as he is prolific, and this is one of his best.

The Indifference of Heaven

A while back I was asked what book drove me to crime fiction; the first crime books I read were Encyclopedia Brown and Agatha Christie. But what books inspired me to write?
Eight Million Ways to Die, by Lawrence Block; Down in the Zero, by Andrew Vachss; and Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke. They all came out a long while ago. I first began to write in college, in the ’90s. I’d written a few stories in high school, but mostly a huge and stupid space fantasy novel that I wish I could remember the title of. Dreamslayer, I think. I had another Clive Barker-esque tale called Dirge, the Immortalist I was working on. But once my friend Jack Chan handed me a Dashiell Hammett book- The Continental Op- I was hooked for good.

My first crime novel was of course, envisioned as a series, because the trinity of authors above dealt in series. Burke, Robicheaux, Scudder. My guy, named “Phil,” was a heroin addict in recovery who takes a job from a pharmacist to find his runaway daughter. The trail leads him to New Orleans, where he hooks up with a female cop, finds the girl, and her old man happens to be the bad guy, as we all expected. I never finished it, and I regret not following through, but I think Phil is best left simmering in my brain to develop further. He’s from a time in my life that is thankfully long gone, and the ideas he inspired are ready for another novel someday, currently called Weekend Irish.

So why’s Warren Zevon up there? That song has continued to be an inspiration for crime stories long after Phil went in the drawer. It’s about a guy in a dead-end life robbing a 7-11, it going bad, and leaving him watch the surf recede on the beach as he waits for the inevitable. Zevon’s father was a small time mobster, and he was never home. According to his biography, the old man was never around and little Warren idolized him. He lived the wild life he imagined for his father vicariously through his songs, and this is one of the most heartfelt. I listen to it sometimes when I need the right tone of melancholy, when a man wants to do right but knows he’ll end up hurting someone in the end.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck

In the Electric Mist with the Onion’s 2 Lovers


This week I decided to lump together my NetFlix and Cable reviews into one post, and make them much shorter. Unless I think a movie deserves the full treatment of course.

In the Electric Mist
Tommy Lee Jones is watchable in most anything- I even watched Man of the House– but James Lee Burke’s novels have had a hard time making it to screen. Much of the drama is internal, and while Mr. Jones can say so much with that craggy face of his, the story mostly gets lost here. Jones is Dave Robicheaux, sheriff in Iberia Parish Louisiana, where Hollywood big shots have come to film a War of Northern Aggression movie. And the bodies of young women start showing up in the bayou. John Goodman plays a producer with dirty money Dave knoves from days of old; Peter Sarsgaard plays a drunken film star who befriends Dave against his wishes. Robicheaux is a recovering alcoholic, and after someone doses him with LSD, he begins seeing a dead Civil War general in the mist- the novel’s original title is In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead- but nothing of much depth comes of it. The film was yanked from director Bertrand Tavernier, re-cut and dumped to DVD- a pity, since he created the well-regarded thriller Coup de Torchon. It’s a decent viewing, but it just doesn’t make it. Watching Tommy Lee Jones flirt with wifey Mary Steenburgen, and butt heads with John Goodman, might satisfy you.

Rating: Enh.

The Onion Movie
I was a big fan of the Onion even before it made it to the web, and it remains one of the best comedy sites. A movie, though? Well, part of it is a Kentucky Fried Movie-like skit comedy with news stories come to life, and that works. But the linking story, about the newspaper being taken over by a media conglomerate and attacked by terrorists, is pretty boring. It’s hard not to laugh at Steven Seagal showing up as the star of Cockpuncher, though. And some of the movie’s little in-jokes, like making up a bunch of fake ethnic stereotypes and then making them true, work very well. It’s hit or miss, but worth watching if you like the website’s sense of humor.

Rating: Enh.


Two Lovers

Soon to be blamed as the movie that made Joaquin Phoenix coo-coo for cocoa puffs, this is a decent romance drama starring him as a troubled young man recovering from a broken engagement, who gets torn between two lovers. One is the safe daughter of his father’s business associate, played by Vinessa Shaw (the hottie who saves Tom’s bacon in Eyes Wide Shut) ; and Gwyneth Paltrow, a sexy neighbor who has plenty of problems of her own. The story, written and directed by James Gray (We Own the Night) suffers from the same malaise his last film did- the story is lacking punch and emotional drive, and is a bit predictable. The acting is excellent here; I’d say Phoenix would be nominated if his public antics wouldn’t sour the Academy on him. He hasn’t been this good since Commodus in Gladiator. Paltrow is excellent as well, playing the thankless role of Michelle, who just can’t quit a married man (Elias Koteas, quite good as well). I liked it, sometimes a story is good even if you know where it is going, if the characters are good enough. And that’s the case here.

Rating: Worthy