Blade of Dishonor

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Sep 122013
 
By Thomas Pluck
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I like action movies. Or I used to. A lot of the newer ones don't have the feel of the "classics," which for me began with First Blood. Based on the novel by David Morrell, it tells the tale of a Vietnam Vet trying to get home when a sheriff inadvertently starts a war with him. It is a character-driven novel, as most action tales are. What defines us better than our actions? It's difficult to be an unreliable narrator when you have little internal monologue. You can mask the motives for your actions, but as Andrew Vachss says, "behavior is the truth."

Look at Parker, the hardboiled favorite. From paragraph one, he's moving, like a shark. Someone offers him a ride, and Parker tells him to go to hell. On the way to a meet, someone blocks his way, Parker chops his throat and kills him. We know him from what he does; his job defines him.

Action defines character.
Thomas Pluck

That doesn't mean that without action you don't have character, but there is no reason to eschew action if you enjoy character-driven novels. And that was my mantra when writing BLADE OF DISHONOR, an action thriller hatched from an idea created with David Cranmer of Beat to a Pulp.

An MMA fighter. A treasured sword. And a ninja clan that had to have it. That is what we began with. What I ended up with was a young fighter named Reeves whose temper ended his career and sent him to war. When he comes home, he finds the last of his family, his grandfather, barely hanging on in a town devastated by the recession, and his old enemy in charge of things.

Grandpa Butch is a World War II vet who runs a pawn shop and Army surplus store. Reeves grew up in that iron playground, but there was one toy he couldn't touch: a Japanese sword that Butch brought home from the war, and would never talk about.

I did some research about Japanese swords after World War 2. Everyone knows a vet who has one, usually an officer's sword. But the most treasured Japanese blade of all, the Honjo Masamune, went missing in 1945. It was forged by Japan's most revered swordsmith, Masamune, and was passed down by the Tokugawa clan to the reigning shogun. But after the fires went out in Tokyo, a soldier took it home. And it has never been seen since.

That was a story I couldn't resist. I began the story in Minnesota, because I know the area and the people, and adventures need space to roam around in. A little more reading and I learned that the Devil's Brigade, the 1st Special Service Force, trained not far from there. They are the Nazi hunter commandos that Tarantino based Inglorious Basterds on, and their real stories have never been told. They would sent scouts into camps of SS soldiers on the Vosges line and slit the throats of every tenth man. And leave a sticker on his helmet that read "Das Dicke Ende Kommt Noch!" … the worst is yet to come.

If I'd made that up, it would be dismissed as hyperbole. And you're damn right the Devils are in the book. To me, a good thriller doesn't just make your heart race, you learn something. Hidden parts of history, or disturbing actions by terrorists or governments. Or in this book's case, all three. Did you know about Unit 731? You will.

You need big characters to make through big events. So I wrote big. Butch Sloane, the wheelchair-bound WW2 vet, based on my great-uncles who fought in the war. 'Rage Cage' Reeves, a hot-headed smartmouth based on all the MMA fighters I've sparred and slugged it out with at the gym. Tara, the hot-rodding ambulance driver, based on a number of fiery women in my life. And Miyamoto, the last samurai of a secretive brotherhood, fighting his sworn enemy: the yakuza assassins of the Black Dragon society, which pulp fanatics might recognize from novels set in the '30s, when Japan invaded China.

So when I say this book is about an MMA fighter caught in a battle between ninja and samurai over a stolen Japanese sword… I mean it's a character-driven novel.


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Mar 262012
 

This week, I introduce eighteen college students to Sam Spade.
We're viewing the John Huston film "The Maltese Falcon," watching Humphrey Bogart outsmart Mary Astor and pals as they pursue "the black bird."
The students are enrolled in a class I teach in the Honors Program at the University of New Mexico. The class is called "Hard-boiled Fiction and Film Noir." I've taught it before, and always come away amazed at how little these very bright students have been exposed to private eyes in fiction and film. Most have never heard of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald before they take this course. A few have never watched a black-and-white movie before.
They do have a sense of what a private investigator is and what he does, but it's a vague notion of fedoras and trenchcoats and window-peeping. Until we talk about it in class, they're not aware of the place the private eye holds in the fiction tradition of the lone hero facing overwhelming odds and an uncaring society.
For those of us who write contemporary P.I. series, this lack of knowledge in the next generation of readers feels daunting and worrisome. Is there no place for the private eye anymore? Do today's youth only care about Harry Potter and sparkly vampires and Grand Theft Auto?
Here's the good news: It takes only a little exposure to get young people jazzed about private eyes. Once they've read some stories, they uniformly love the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. My students will debate long and loud over the merits of other types of hard-boiled stories or films noir, but they always recognize the private eye as a heroic figure, even when he doesn't act heroically. The students respect a man who does his job, no matter how nasty or dangerous it becomes. And that's been the lure of the private eye all along.

(Steve Brewer is the author of 20-plus crime novels, including nine stories featuring Albuquerque private eye Bubba Mabry. The latest in the series is the new novella PARTY DOLL.)
Mar 062012
 
By Hilary Davidson

First, thanks to my friend Steve Weddle for letting me loose on DSD today. I promised him I wouldn’t break anything, but that was only to get him to stop hovering. You know how he is.

Actually, you do know how he is, by which I mean kind and generous to fellow writers. He asked me to stop by because my second novel, THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s the follow-up to THE DAMAGE DONE, and it picks up three months after the first book ends. Both novels feature Lily Moore, travel writer and accidental sleuth. I’m on tour now, and one question that keeps coming up at events is about how hard it was for me to pick up from where I’d left off, especially since THE DAMAGE DONE read like a standalone and left Lily in a very dark place at the end.

The truth is, I always intended to write several books about Lily. A big part of the reason why is that I couldn’t imagine putting Lily through the hell she goes through in THE DAMAGE DONE without following up with her later. At the beginning of THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, she’s still shell-shocked and grieving deeply. Her best friend, Jesse, has conned her into coming to Peru with him — since they both work in travel, it’s a business trip for them — and she’s sleepwalking through it, dragging her ghosts after her. At Machu Picchu, she can’t appreciate the beauty of the stone city without thinking about death. When they find a dying woman at the bottom of an Inca staircase, it’s as if the dark thoughts in Lily’s head have taken on a physical form. But later, as she hunts for the woman’s traveling companion, and discovers a trail of dead and missing women behind him, she becomes determined to get justice.

Writing the second book with Lily forced me to confront an ongoing debate about series characters and whether or not they should change. At my first Thrillerfest in 2009, Lee Child made an argument for writing a protagonist who never changes, one who goes from book to book as essentially the same person. He said that readers, when they love a character, just want to see more of that character, not an evolution that changes him.

At the time, I couldn’t have disagreed more. I love series characters who evolve over the course of several books, as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch does, and as Spenser in Robert B. Parker’s early novels did. When I think of a character who remains the same from book to book, I think of Nancy Drew.

It was only when I was in the middle of writing THE NEXT ONE TO FALL that I started to reconsider that position. There are so many obvious ways in which Lily changes over the course of that book that I had to stop to consider what hadn’t changed about her. I also wanted to parse out the temporary changes — grief, at the start of the new book, has made her listless and passive, which is entirely unlike the Lily in the first book… and quite unlike the one in the rest of THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, who starts to come back to life as she goes after justice for the dead and missing female victims.

I realized that many of the changes aren’t so much to Lily’s character as to her perspective. When Lily encounters the sister of one of victim, who is hunting for her missing sister in Peru, it breaks her heart on one level, because it reminds her of her own search for her sister. At the same time, this woman drives Lily mad because of her stubbornness and her reckless behavior — not entirely unlike Lily’s own in THE DAMAGE DONE.

In so many ways, Lily is the same. She’s still a woman haunted by her family history, one who has classic Hollywood movies running up against verses by Edgar Allan Poe in her head, one who uses modern technology to listen to Frank Sinatra songs, one who just can’t let things go. The bad-girl side that was suppressed in the first book comes out in the second, but it was always there, lurking beneath her smooth veneer before it cracked. Even her desire for justice, which gets ever more powerful in THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, contains an echo from the first book: Lily didn’t find justice then, so she’s damned sure she’ll get it now.

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