Stuttering into The Gutter today we present FFO Editor Mick Rose and crime writer Rob Pierce, who edits works as well. These two bourbon lovers get tongue-tied as they talk about TOMMY SHAKES, the latest novel by Mr. Pierce.
MR: Congratulations, Rob. Cresting the wave of your crime books Uncle Dust, Vern In The Heat, and With The Right Enemies, your latest published venture Tommy Shakes finally releases from Down & Out imprint All DueRespect on September 27th.
You’ve described your books as being different, yet taking place in the same universe. You live and write in Oakland, CA USA—and your previous criminal characters conduct their illicit business dealings in both actual and fictional environs relatively close to Oakland. What’s Tommy’s range of operations?
RP: Oakland, Berkeley, just around. The big crime in Tommy Shakes takes place at a fictitious restaurant near Lake Merritt, about a mile from my house. The final scenes take place in Berkeley near the Marina. But the whole book is set locally; Oakland and Berkeley, bar to bar, real ones and ones based on real ones. There are scenes that take place outside of bars, but most don’t matter as much as the scenes that take place in them.
MR: I read and enjoyed Enemies earlier this year: a suspenseful, dark page-turner. While many criminals—in fact or fiction—are dumb-ass delinquents, your characters such as Uncle Dust, Rico, Vollmer, and Cobb prove highly intelligent and excel at their jobs. Yet you mentioned to crime writer Jesse Rawlins at Story andGrit last year that Mr. Tommy Shakes—despite a long career in crime, is nowhere near as competent.
What influenced you to take Tommy in a different direction?
RP: I wrote the book while going through a breakup with my wife. It was difficult for me to write the end of the book—I knew how it would end but it was hell to get there. After my wife moved out I was finally able to finish the book. Slowly. Therapeutic for me I suppose, but Hell for readers. So, uh, thanks for enjoying my work, Mick.
But you know, it’s all about writing a book that’s interesting for the reader. And Tommy’s descent downhill and his need to escape—yeah, I think his attempt is damned interesting.
MR: I get the impression Tommy’s last name “Shakes” is likely a play on words. Does he struggle with alcohol or drug use, Rob? And does this name also reflect that he’s shaky at his job?
RP: His real name is Tommy Shakowski so there’s that. It’s not that Tommy is stupid, but he’s controlled by his addictions to alcohol and love. Although by that I mean his definition of love, which is comfort and sex. It’s not that he’s shaky on the job, but that he always blows the money. And he gets sucked into a situation—the job is there, but it requires some work. And the work gets a man killed who is a lieutenant to a local drug lord (Joey Lee), which leads to Joey hunting every man on that job. Which is a lot worse for Tommy than murder one would have been.
So the end of the novel is Tommy trying to get away from Joey Lee and finding the impossibility of that, but still with a chance. The ending is NOT open ended, however. It’s a question of whether Tommy lives or dies.
MR: The central female characters in ENEMIES shared several common traits—including strong attractions to truly dangerous men. Olivia and Theresa in particular find themselves mired in deep shit because of their romantic choices.
What kind of woman is Tommy’s wife? And does she play any role in this drama besides acting as Tommy’s catalyst for working this job that might cost him his life?
RP: Carla, Tommy’s wife, is essentially a foil: she’s beautiful and they used to have something but now… I guess you could call her a catalyst. I think of her more as a bullet. She’s got power, she’ll raise their boy with or without Tommy but she keeps giving him one more chance. Because there is good in him and she sees it. But, and here I think it’s funny that you bring up Theresa and Olivia, as they were romantic rivals, Tommy also starts seeing another woman. And Amanda is bad news, which starts out great for Tommy, but where it goes from there? Yeah, a whole ’nother story.
MR: In ENEMIES you created a wide cast of characters incensed with tracking down the criminal Uncle Dust. We also found ourselves dropped in the middle of a drug war between two rival gangsters.
How many players does Tommy hook up with for this job? And do you care to share any details, Rob, about what this job “involves?”
RP: He goes with Juke, who he knows, Dunbar, who he doesn’t, plus Karma D’Angelo, who seems outside of everyone and everything but comes recommended by Juke. It’s a robbery, only Karma gets gun happy and the cavalry shows before they escape. One of Karma’s shooting victims, a rescuer, worked for gang boss Joey Lee, who takes a sudden interest in the restaurant.
MR: Is local drug lord Joey Lee Asian, Rob? And when he seeks retribution for the death of his lieutenant, does Mr. Lee unleash a swarm of thugs out onto the streets to track Tommy and his cohorts? Or at some point is he “personally” involved in committing vengeful violent acts?
RP: Yeah, Joey’s Chinese, but I wouldn’t say he unleashes a swarm. More like word gets out, and word comes with money and prestige. And these guys on the hunt aren’t looking for just Tommy; Karma, Juke, and Dunbar are also among the hunted. And no, Joey doesn’t hit the streets himself. He’s too busy trying to corner the East Bay. But not too busy to send other men after his blood money.
MR: Bars, booze, blunders; bloodshed, bosses, bounties; a bad-news babe—and a life-or-death struggle that’s got criminal Tommy Shakowski running in quaky shoes. A volatile bay-area cocktail, Rob. No one with a lick of sense would wanna walk in Tommy’s shoes. But suspense lovers should enjoy following in Tommy’s footsteps.
Good luck to you and TOMMY SHAKES, Rob.