Written by Thomas Pluck — New Jersey native Thomas Pluck has been a part of the American crime fiction indie scene for a while now. He has edited two Protectors benefit anthologies – the first of of which we reviewed – as well has having stories placed in several crime mags. Bad Boy Boogie may be independently published, but this novel comes with recommendations from some top crime writers including Wallace Stroby, Megan Abbott and Adrian McKinty.
Jay Desmarteaux was sentenced to life without parole just after his 16th birthday for the murder of local bully Joey Bello, but was released after 25 years on appeal. This much we learn in the first couple of pages, and the rest of Bad Boy Boogie is dedicated to finding out why Jay committed the murder, and how his plans for revenge on those responsible for his incarceration will work out.
The novel alternates between a present day narrative following Jay’s release from Rahway Prison, and those few months prior to his crime. Jay had moved from New Orleans to New Jersey with his family and had started making friends, and enemies, who would go on to define his life.
Bad Boy Boogie is as quick off the blocks as the Dodge Challenger Jay drives around in. It begins with him leaving prison, all bad attitude and cocky strut, and accelerates into brutal, bloody violence as he dispatches the heavy mob sent by his enemies to make sure he doesn’t stay in New Jersey and open up any old wounds.
This book is drenched in popular culture of a certain style and period and is reminiscent of George Pelecanos. And if Pelecanos is an influence, Pluck certainly has great taste. However, where Pelecanos usually fills his novels with the sweet sounds of funk and soul and take fashion and slang from black culture, Pluck’s references are from the white, blue collar world. AC/DC song titles name separate sections of the novel, and the majority of characters are white, and involved in either business or mainstream politics. The sexually explicit subject matter, casual violence, and pulp-like trope of the wronged man returning to deliver deadly retribution evoke 70s grindhouse cinema. The writing, just about as hard-bitten as could be conceived, suggests Richard Stark is another influence, while the central themes of childhood sexual abuse and the cycle of violence that comes from it scream Andrew Vachss.
The ability to unflinchingly display the unredeemable nature of the sexual predator and the awful effects upon his victims has always been one of the strengths of Vachss’ writing, and Pluck does just as well here. He is able to plausibly explain the mechanism of Bello’s emerging psychopathy, without excusing the cruel and deviant behaviour that results.
However, Pluck also displays some of Vachss’ failings. The first chapter is whip-taught and builds familiarity and expectation. Desmarteaux and his friends are terrorised by the school bully, and concoct a plan for revenge. Once the plan’s been executed, Desmarteaux becomes a convenient fall guy and is abandoned by the people he helped. I was anticipating a hard-as-nails gritty revenge thriller that would grab me and not let go until a couple of nights later. Unfortunately, two nights later I was still less than a fifth into the book. The author’s more-is-more approach left me increasingly frustrated. Each successive revelation, be it (another) closeted homosexual or (another) childhood victim of abuse, tested my credulity until eventually it broke. Similarly, the escalating levels of violence (tomahawks, wood chippers, death by garbage truck) had the opposite effect to that desired.
Despite these concerns, there really is a lot to admire about Bad Boy Boogie, and if the author can assimilate the best elements of his influences and leave aside the worst, then the next Jay Desmarteaux thriller could end up being something special.
Down & Out Books
CFL Rating: 3 Stars