18 March 2017

On Killing and Consequences

Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which Mystery People called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim Museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, also home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture.

NOTE: I met Thomas at Bouchercon 2015, and have been a fan of his novels and stories ever since. Please join me in welcoming him to SleuthSayers!
— John Floyd

by Thomas Pluck

Normal people don't like violence, but they sure enjoy reading about it. And those of us who write violent stories are often called hypocrites when we decry violence in the real world. If you glorify violence, you may be inspiring it. But then again, you can inspire violence with a story that includes little. Just ask Salinger.

I have experienced violence, witnessed violence, and trained in violence. And I write stories that often depict violence. Yet I do not support violence, except in defense. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, that's your prerogative. But the difference is that I know the consequences of violence, and if anything, I write about those consequences more than the violence itself.

On Twitter, director Jeremy Saulnier recently got into a tiff (which seems to be what Twitter is best for, lately) when he supported a woman's charity run that was against gun violence. He writes violent films, such as Blue Ruin and Green Room. The troll said that audiences just see violence and react with "awesome! His head blew up!" To paraphrase, Saulnier replied "have you seen my movies?"

Truffaut famously said that there were no antiwar films because "to show something is to ennoble it" and later amended it, saying he never saw an antiwar film, because in the end they are all pro-war. Violence is exciting, and no matter how brutal you make it, someone will be titillated. In fact, you may only jade the audience. We're a long way from when Derek Raymond made readers flinch with the opening to I Was Dora Suarez. We've seen war films and crime films with limbs dangling by a thread. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Don Winslow's The Cartel, both dare the reader to continue, as the bloodshed mounts. I don't recall anyone swearing off crime fiction or westerns after reading them. Because they show the consequences.

It's a kind of shell shock. The adrenaline scours your veins and leaves you feeling empty. Everyone loves a good revenge tale, but there's a reason Sicilians say "when you set out for revenge, dig two graves." The other one is for yourself. Because revenge is a fantasy of justice. The only justice that would truly satisfy us requires a time machine. We can't be the person we were before we were victimized, and the dead can't be brought back. And as Gandhi said "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Revenge, if unchecked, would eventually kill us all. The Vikings had the blood price, to end such disputes. If only it were so easy.

Violence is not pretty and it always has a price. My great-uncle Butch (to whom I dedicated Blade of Dishonor) never spoke about his time in World War 2, except once. With tears in his eyes, he wept for the enemies he had killed. "They were just kids forced off to war, just like us." He was years past ninety when he came to that conclusion, and I am grateful he taught it to me. Because we stop glorifying violence by making our villains human. They can be evil humans, but they must be humans. Rare is the person who wakes up and says, "what evil can I do today?" Even the people we would classify as evil, the utterly selfish, who seem to take glee in trampling others on their route to success, have to say that their victims were weak, and deserved it. They couldn't face it otherwise. Psychopaths without empathy, cannot feel other's pain, but they feel their own acutely. They are not superhuman. The psychopath we perhaps know the most about, Carl Panzram, refused to believe that anyone thought differently than he did. That we were all out for ourselves, that we were just good at hiding it. There was no proving Panzram wrong; it's not as if he would have broken down in the face of true altruism. His mind simply would not permit such a belief to exist.

In Bad Boy Boogie, I studied "killology," as Lt. Dan Grossman calls it, which is the study of killing and how it affects professional soldiers and police. I also researched victims of abuse and bullying. Having experienced it myself, I wanted to know how those who avenged themselves felt. And it was no cure. As one character says, "It doesn't get better. It gets bitter." And Jay Desmarteaux, who begins as an acolyte of vengeance, who sincerely believes "some people just need killing," undergoes a journey of discovery that not only exposes the evil that people will commit to protect their deepest inner selves, but how killing affects the psyche, no matter how just a killing we tell ourselves it is.

One reader called Jay "Parker on steroids." For a fan of Don Westlake's work, that's as great a compliment as I may ever receive, Jay will crack a joke, and worse, he will regret the killing he's done, two things the outlaw demigod Parker would never do. But even Parker is more than a shell, though we don't see much evidence until the later books with Claire. He isn't a true sociopath. Once Claire comes into the picture he extends his circle of empathy to include her, and views attacks on her as if they are attacks on himself. This is a brilliant, subdued portrayal of how a killer deals psychologically with the world, and Westlake does it with incredibly entertaining stories that still have a large following.

And while Parker leaves a trail of bodies through the series, often for revenge or "to set things straight," the deaths put him and Claire at risk. The birds come home to roost. And it doesn't take away from the entertainment, or turn it into a "message story." The violent world of Parker always cuts both ways, just as in the real world.


  1. It’s been said sports is a metaphor for war, certainly a substitute. Some are more obvious than others– rugby, football, soccer– but it could be argued as we watch the NCAA, that fans have (barely) sublimated their thirst for war in March Madness.

    I think it’s possible to respond in the same way to the visceral thrill of violent films and novels, such as Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey (Death Wish I…∞) and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. It’s like the mirror of horror films– we don’t really want to be eaten by zombies who lost their Medicaid, but we do like feeling safely scared.

    You may have noticed Florida is an extremely bloodthirsty state– we love to kill (we’re working on an enhanced Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law) and we love to execute people whether or not they’re guilty. We have a situation in which a man killed his pregnant girlfriend and subsequently killed a cop in a WalMart about 5 minutes from my house. The chief prosecutor, Aramis Ayala, picked that case to announce she was done seeking death penalties. The governor with one eye on the polls, went ballistic and pulled her from the case, appointing another prosecutor who believes in an eye for an eye for an eye… Vengeance is thriving in Florida.

  2. Welcome to SleuthSayers. Nice ariticle.

  3. Hey, Tom -- Provocative post here, and congrats on the new book. Look forward to seeing you in Toronto--and around the web between now and then!

  4. Great insights, here. I've often heard readers ask how we writers can tell stories that contain a great deal of violence without condoning violence, and this column effectively addresses that. And I agree that the "Parker on steroids" comment is a compliment--I love all Westlake's novels (and Elmore Leonard's also).

    Thanks again for guest-posting today, Tom. Hope our paths cross again soon.

  5. Great post, and thanks for it!
    From my work at the pen, I can assure you that 90% of the guys there have tried vengeance and revenge, and of those, 90% have learned that it didn't get them any satisfaction (except at the immediate adrenaline-pumped time) and instead, got them in more trouble, left them more bitter. Of course, by the time I see them, they've had sufficient time to think about it, and have decided they can't live that way anymore.

  6. I have been a fan of Mr. P. ever since 2011 when I read his story "The Uncleared." (Available for free at http://a-twist-of-noir.blogspot.com/2011/09/interlude-stories-thomas-pluck.html ) He takes a novella-size plot and brings it in as flash fiction (under a 1,000 words) without making you feel like a word is missing.

    Nice column, my brother New Jerseyan.

  7. I sometimes include fight scenes in stories and novels--my husband is a fifth-degree black belt, and it's hard to avoid the temptation to include fight scenes when you've got an in-house choreographer as a resource. I try to keep the emphasis on the protagonist's strategy and emotions, rather than on blood and gore. And I get uncomfortable when I read scenes that invite us to focus on a helpless victim's pain and fear, especially if the victim is a woman and the attacker is a man. (If the victim gets a chance to fight back successfully later, that helps.) As you say, no matter how we write a scene, it's probably impossible to avoid titillating some readers, but I think it's often possible to keep titillation to a minimum by trying to direct the reader's attention. And, as you say, writing honestly about the consequences of violence is also important. Intriguing post, Tom--you got me thinking.

  8. Thank you all for the welcomes, it's an honor to be here.
    Leigh, our culture certainly is one that expects punishment for "sins," whatever they may be, so vengeance will continue to thrive. Nebraska tried to ban the death penalty, the popular vote was for the ban, but many tried to block it. It's been with us a long time, and no matter the statistics on how many innocents are killed by the state, it just sticks in our craw when a guilty murderer gets to breath the same air we do. I have my own beliefs but I can't offer a solution. I'd want revenge on someone who killed a loved one of mine, I know that much. Right or wrong.

    John, thank you. Violence is out there and ignoring it won't make it stop. We do have a duty to humanize characters, especially those that are the victims of violence. I've written battles with faceless villains- usually in a combat situation, and I regret it, after my great-uncle confiding in me how combat affected him.

    Eve, that's a lesson we can teach over and over, because vengeance is such a primal desire. Sometimes people have to learn it the hard way.

    Robert, thank you for mentioning The Uncleared. You've been after me to write that novel and I have plans for it, as soon as I write the second book in the Jay Desmarteaux series. I have a trip to Alaska planned next year to research the "uncleared" novel, which I am calling THE FIRE INSIDE.

    BK, I get that. I personally think women write better scenes like this. Because while men are not free from fear--in fact, hidden male fear is probably the cause of more violence than we can measure--we are usually the perpetrator, or too distracted to be afraid when we should. Whether that's testosterone, cultural indoctrination, or both, it is rare when a man honestly shares his fear in a situation (and not for a loved one in danger) unless it's something like facing down a grizzly bear. I try to be honest about that--the "heroes" are afraid but can act in spite of it. Not everyone who wins a fight does so with clean underpants. But we don't talk about that, because we consider it cowardice instead of biology.


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