JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I owe my discovery of Thomas Pluck to my husband. I was at the bar at last year's Albany Bouchercon when Ross came up with a tote bag full of novels from the book room. "Look at this," he said, thrusting BLADE OF DISHONOR into my hand. "This has got to be the best book ever."
"What's it about?" I asked.
"Who cares? Look at that cover!" Ladies and gentlemen, behold the power of connecting the right cover to the right audience. As it turned out, BLADE OF DISHONOR was a terrifically fun read; pulpy, page-turning and action-packed. Thomas Pluck is going to tell us how he put together the pieces to create the book he wanted to read.
Of all the writing advice out there, my favorite is "Write the book you want to read." When writing BLADE OF DISHONOR, I took this to heart.
Growing up in the late '70s, I was bombarded by over the top pulp, adventure, and exploitation films, my favorite of which is Raiders of the Lost Ark. It has crazy action, a brisk storyline that moves so fast we never have time to question it, and it introduces us to rich characters we want to see again and again. It continues to make us think today. For example, did Indiana Jones actually have to do anything, when the Ark would kill the Nazis all along? (more on that later).
When Beat to a Pulp's David Cranmer came to me with the idea of an MMA fighter named Reeves fighting ninjas over a legendary sword, I dived into research. When I learned that perhaps the most legendary of all Japanese swords, the Honjo Masamune, disappeared at the end of World War II, I had my story. Masamune was the most famed swordmaker throughout Japanese history, and that particular sword was handed down among the Shoguns of the Tokugawa family. Shrouded in rumor, its last appearance had it with an American soldier, confiscated during the occupation. And then it vanished.
Where would such a sword go and not be found? Collectors are notorious braggarts, so if it was sold into a collection, it would be shown enough that eventually someone would blab. What if it were disguised as a simple officer's sword, the common trophy of American soldiers who fought in the Pacific? It could be right under our noses in Grandpa's attic… now I needed a grandfather to give the sword to, and a reason to protect it. Grandpa Butch practically wrote himself. I internalized a lot of grumpy old WWII vet personality from my great-uncles, and I dedicated the book to them. The story fell into place. Reeves would learn that Grandpa Butch had that legendary sword, sworn defend it from a clan of ninja and Yakuza who wanted it for their own nefarious ends.
I grew up surrounded by great-uncles who all served in World War II. I wanted to write an adventure tale that would tell a realistic and human story, to share their experiences in the war. I've been to Tokyo, where I filmed my friend Peter's first shooto fight, and I trained at a dojo and fell in love with the city's constant flow of energy. But I also saw Nationalists blaring messages from their black vans, wanting to recapture the greatness their Empire had before the war. The locals don't take the Nationalists (uyoku dantai) seriously, but the groups have become more intertwined with the Yakuza, and the more I read, the more they reminded me of that staple villain of '40s pulps: The Black Dragon Society.
The Black Dragons are based in reality, and were a quasi-governmental group of spies who infiltrated Korea and China prior to the invasion, and believed that Japan was destined to rule Asia. And what better symbol to rise back into power than the sword of the Tokugawa Shogunate? The name alone conjures images of a shadowy martial arts organization dedicated to evil, the perfect bad guys for martial arts adventure films and pulp paperbacks such as The Destroyer and The Rat Bastards. Those super fast reads with cartoon villains and ridiculous plots that throw us right into the action.
The books are often guilty pleasures, because they were written to be a quick read, not to be lasting. But we readers ate them up anyway. I wanted to combine the sense of fast-paced fun those novels gave me, but deliver memorable characters and write fight scenes that my trainers and fellow fighters would enjoy and find believable, that were still exciting for folks who don't watch boxing, much less get in the ring themselves. Having trained in Kachin Bando, a martial art developed by the Kachin tribesmen of Burma, I was lucky enough to have a fight gym full of enthusiastic fellow wackos who were happy to choreograph fights with me, and a teacher- Phil Dunlap- who was glad to answer questions like "what's the fastest way to break someone's clavicle?"
Another thing that those guilty pleasure pulp paperbacks often lack is strong female characters. And by that I mean characters who matter to the story, have their own designs and desires, and aren't puppies following the main character around. Between Tara the hot-rodding ambulance driver and Jean-Marie Dundee the Montana rancher whose land abuts the training grounds of the Devil's Brigade, the 1st Special Service Force of commandos from the U.S. and Canada, I had that covered. And in Japan we've got Yumi the journalist in deep cover, and Oki the deadly commando assassin…
So when MysteryPeople called Blade of Dishonor "the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks," I do declare, I felt I might be overcome with the vapours. The book accomplished what I wanted it to do. And when one of my literary heroes, Andrew Vachss said, "You want interwoven plots running parallel between WWII and Right Now? You want violence mixed with romance? You want sacrifice, courage, and honor? Truth-based fable? Or maybe you just want hardcore-clean writing delivered at warp speed. Look no further—it’s all here," I did in fact faint and my wife had to revive me with smelling salts and a smack upside the head, because she's from Louisiana, and says that we Yankees can't really get "the vapours."
Personally, I think any writer can get the vapours. And as for Indiana Jones, Spoiler Alert! If he hadn't been there when the Ark did its melty-face lightning show, it would have fallen into Nazi hands again, instead of being secreted away to the famous vault at the end. Or the Allies would have tried to use it, and maybe Ike would have been a pool of melted Ike-cream.
In penance for that awful pun, I'm giving away one digital copy of Blade of Dishonor to a lucky commenter. What's your favorite adventure story?
Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two cats, where he powerlifts and trains in mixed-martial arts. He's a computer geek now, but has worked on the docks, at construction sites, and has flipped burgers, washed dishes, and even cleaned the bathrooms of the Guggenheim museum. His work has appeared in The Utne Reader, [PANK] Magazine, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Criminal Element, and numerous anthologies. He is also the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, which includes "Runaway" by Dave White, which was chosen as a distinguished story in Best American Mystery Stories 2013. You can find him on the web at www.thomaspluck.com and Twitter as @thomaspluck