Here’s a video interview I did with the always fabulous Jen Forbus of

Here’s an interview I did  for CRIMESPREE along with the great author Michael Black, who also features fighters in his books.


James Danser

Q: Here I am with two of the legitimately tough guys in mystery fiction. Glad you both could make it.

Tom: My pleasure.

Mike: Likewise. That was my Bogart imitation.

Q: You both use characters who have full time jobs, but who also are professional fighters. How did that come about?

Tom Schreck: Well, I work in pro boxing as a fight judge and the truth of the matter is that most pros work a day job. In fact the vast majority of ‘pros’ make a few hundred bucks a fight. Anyway, I wanted a character who was liberal in his thinking but also a tough guy with a lot of guy in him. A fighter who was also a social worker seemed like an interesting character.

Mike Black: I’ve always been interested and involved in the martial arts, dating way back to age eleven when my dad taught me the rudiments of boxing and enrolled me in judo classes so I could deal with the bullies who picked on me.

Q: How does the inclusion of this aspect factor into your novels?

Tom: Duffy can go from one scene where his being the sensitive counselor type to the next scene where he’s smashing a guy’s head into the side of a car. He’s not just a tough guy and he’s not just a counseling-type guy—he lives in both worlds.

Mike: Sounds like an effective counseling technique to me.

Tom: (Laughs) Yeah, I’ve been tempted to use it more than a few times.

Q: How about your character, Mike?

Mike: With Ron Shade it’s part of his overall quest for redemption. Shade held a kickboxing title for a short time when he was in the army, but let it capriciously slip away when he became a cop. After his fall from grace on the department, the period he describes as his life falling apart, he wanted to pick up the pieces and winning back the heavyweight kickboxing championship became an integral part of that.

Q: You both have extensive experience with various forms of the martial arts and in dealing with physical confrontations. Tell us a bit about your respective experiences and abilities.

Mike: Abilities? Like those far beyond those of mortal men? I think you’ve got me mixed up with that dude with the big red S on his chest. Actually, I’ve studied just about every fighting art there is at one time or another. I got my black belt in Tae Kwon Do in Seoul back in 1975, and kind of gravitated into full-contact fighting. I used to spar with my buddy, Mike McNamara back in the day. He was a world-class professional kickboxer, and he used to clean my clock regularly.

Tom: I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, as well, and that brought me to boxing. I’ve spent years in gyms sparring with amateur fighters and some pros. At my best I could hang with good amateurs and bad pros. Really good amateurs and average pros would kick my ass.

Q: So you’ve both have spent some time in the ring. How does actually engaging in a fight, be it a sporting event or on the street, affect your writing styles?

Tom: I think Mike would agree that it helps with authenticity. There are things that happen when you fight that you wouldn’t know unless you fought. A nose makes a certain sound when it breaks under your fist, taking a shot in the gut has an indescribable pain and the adrenaline rush from it all isn’t duplicated by anything in softball, football and certainly golf.

Mike: Tom’s absolutely right. It’s just like the feeling after getting tagged with a left hook to the liver. You get hit hard, and your brain keeps saying, “it’s coming, it’s coming,” and a few seconds later your legs stop moving and it hurts like hell.

Q: Sounds like fun.

Tom: It’s a barrel of laughs, all right.

Mike: Especially when it’s your turn in the barrel.

Q: Tom, in your first book, On the Ropes, you introduce us to social worker and journeyman fighter, Duffy Dombrowski. Tell us a little about what drives him.

Tom: Duffy hates when the vulnerable are taken advantage of. He hates hypocrisy and he does everything he can to fight it even if it means fighting dirty for the greater good. Duff doesn’t like rules especially ones he finds stupid and tedious so he breaks them, lies and manipulates to get around them. More than that though he’s an angry guy. The books are funny but Duff is often pissed and sometimes it’s hard to tell if his Robin Hood shit is to save someone or to vent his rage.

Q: I’ve also noticed a certain degree of humor in your books and stories. Would you care to comment on that?

Tom: Well, humor is a strange thing. I almost hesitate to talk about my books being funny because then hardcore mystery fans tend to dismiss them. The humor comes from real life absurdity and irony. Duff lives with a basset hound who used to be a bomb sniffing dog in the Nation of Islam. The humor is generated from Duffy dealing with Allah-King who hasn’t won any obedience awards. There’s also a lot of bar room humor, 95% of which is stolen from real life interactions I’ve heard while drinking. Between my drinking and living with my own three hounds I think the humor comes from real life stuff.

Q: Mike?

Mike: (Grins) Well, if you’ve read my book, Freeze Me, Tender, you’ll know I’ve always considered myself kind of a funny guy.

Q: Well, tell us about Ron Shade.

Mike: As I said, Shade is on a quest for personal redemption. In the first book in the series, A Killing Frost, he’s in training to fight for the title. At the end of the book he’s injured during a case and has to pull out. In the second book, Windy City Knights, he’s in training for a title shot again, and comes this close. (Holds up thumb and index finger, separated by a millimeter’s space.) Part of the reason for this was I couldn’t figure out a way to include the fight where it wouldn’t conflict with the main plot and seem anticlimactic. Finally, in the third in the series, A Final Judgment, he gets a shot at the title.

Q: That’s an interesting point. You both have substantial real-life experience in fighting. What can you say about the way physical confrontations are portrayed in today’s fictional mysteries?

Tom: First of all real fights are short—often one strike from a guy who knows what he’s doing will end a fight. Second the body just can’t take some of the beatings writers give them in their fight scenes and third, more often than not, it’s a very simple technique that wins a fight. It isn’t a jumping spinning axe kick—it’s more likely to be a quick right cross to the chin.

Mike: And Tom’s got a good right hand. For me, I find it easier to spin someone and grab them in a shimiwaza strangling technique. If I hurt my hands, I can’t type as fast.

Tom: Yeah, you don’t always have time to tape-up before engaging in a street fight.

Q: What are some of the most common things that writers get wrong?

Tom: For me, it’s the amount of thinking that goes on in some narratives during a fight scene. Fighting is almost subconscious and reflexive. As soon as you start to think you’re going to get hit. So when a writer has his fighter plotting what he’s going to do I know they haven’t fought a lot.

Mike: Just like Joe Louis used to say: “If you have to think about it, it’s too late.”

Tom: Joe Louis said that too? Here I thought I was being a really deep writer-type guy. Damn!

There’s also simple things that give a writer’s experience away. The position of the feet, the balance of the body, the way a punch is thrown—all these things are studied and practiced constantly by fighters and there really is only one right way to do a lot of things. When a writer screws it up you can tell easy.

Mike: It’s like your character, Smitty admonishing Duffy to get his hip under his hook, right?

Tom: (Grins) Duff’s been trying to do that since he was fourteen.

Q: How about authors who get it right? Are there any out there you really admire?

Mike: I’ve always enjoyed Robert B. Parker, although I suspect Spenser and Hawk are taking the same stuff that Sylvester Stallone got caught with in Thailand. (Chuckles) I’d have to rank my idol, John D. MacDonald, as one of the best. His Travis McGee series included some great fight scenes. One of these was transferred to film in the adaptation of Darker Than Amber. Although MacDonald didn’t care for the film, the battle in the ship’s cabin between Rod Taylor and William Smith (two of the toughest actors ever) is a classic. I put sort of an homage to McGee’s battle with Terry Ans at the end of my police procedural novel, Random Victim.

Tom: Sometimes I think Mike and I were separated at birth because I would say those two writers too. Although the thing with Spenser and Travis they almost never lose which is bullshit because even the best get beat. Duffy gets beat a lot and that makes him more real.

Q: Mike, a lot of your fights take place not only in the ring, but on the street as well. Have you ever been in a real street fight?

Mike: I’ve been a cop for almost thirty years, so I’ve been in quite a few what I’d call physical confrontations. The worst one was with this big ex-con. I was working in a plainclothes unit and tried to take him into custody by myself. He’d just gotten out of prison and didn’t want to go back. Plus, he’d spent the last couple years pumping iron and shanking other inmates. We were dancing on the second level of this shopping mall, and he made a good try at dumping me over the banister. I managed to use my old judo and ju jitsu training to lock him up and held him until the cavalry arrived. Never underestimate the value of good cardio conditioning.

Q: Tom, do you have any fighting stories you’d like to share with us?

Tom: I bounced in a bar during my karate days and did my best to look menacing. I probably should make something up about biting off an ear of a Hell’s Angel guy but I can’t. I threw a bum out one time for lunging at a bartender and he went down. He got up and fell down on his own. It was kind of embarrassing for me.

Q: Tom, in your books you have Duffy taking training directions from an older, black trainer named Smitty. Mike, in yours the older, black trainer is Chappie. Is this just a coincidence, or what?

Tom: Actually I was worried that it would be too clichéd. Smitty is an old city black guy but he’s also a Dartmouth grad and he’s independently wealthy—though Duffy isn’t sure how.  I guess I wanted a guy who portrayed true wisdom—almost like a spiritual advisor and Smitty who had dealt with racism and the street along with the Ivy league, is who I came up with.

Mike: Yeah, Shade was hoping for Mickey from the Rocky movies, but Burgess Meredith died. Chappie is Shade’s trainer, but he’s also his surrogate father figure, his partner in the Beverly Gym, and his manager. In a series, the secondary characters are like family.

Q: Tom, your upcoming novel, TKO:ROUND TWO, has karate in it. Tell us a little about that one.

Tom: Like me, Duffy got to boxing through his karate training and he discovers a teenage kid who is being abused by his karate instructors. The kid is really goofy into karate and wears a ninja suit and has all the get ups. Duffy agrees to train him and along the way he sort of takes the goofy kid under his wing. Through the interactions I try to point out that being a warrior or, more accurately a fighter, has little to do with karate outfits, patches, belts and bowing and more to do with what’s inside you.

Q: So is this a prelude to Duffy getting a teenage sidekick in the series?

Tom:  I wouldn’t say a sidekick but he makes a significant cameo in Out Cold:Round Three.

Q: Mike, what’s up next for you?

Mike: Well, the mass market edition of A Killing Frost came out in October of ’07, and the first in my new police procedural series, Random Victim, is due out on April 8th. Windy City Knights is coming out in paperback in November, along with the fourth Shade hardcover, Dead Ringer, which I co-wrote with my writing partner, Julie Hyzy.

Q: Okay, I’ve got to ask this, is there any chance that we’ll someday see Duffy Dombrowski squaring off against Ron Shade in a big match?

Tom: I think you might be more likely to see Duff and Ron do some sparring on a Saturday afternoon to get each other ready for their next fights. They’d probably work well together and give each other some real tests. Then, they’d probably go have a beer. That’s how it happens in real life

Mike: You never know. Didn’t Superman fight Muhammad Ali back in the seventies.

Q: Who would win?

Tom: No, no, no I’m not going there. There’s an unspoken code in the gym that you don’t talk that trash about another fighter. I think they’d work well together and test each other a bit. Besides—you see the size of Black don’t you? I’m not crazy.

Mike: I’m with you about not talking the talk, brother. Anyway, the way I see it, we’re both winners.

And this inteview by Gail West

Your character Duffy Dombrowski is far from the clichéd crime solver—how did he come about?

Well, I grew up reading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. As I got older I fell in love with the writing of Carl Hiassen, Janet Evanovich and Michael Connelly.

Like everyone, I always pictured myself in the hero role. Then I started to think what if my main character was more flawed than the average hero, you know he wasn’t a strikingly handsome super bachelor, or a gourmet cook or the toughest guy around.

Duffy is a social worker and a professional boxer—isn’t that a little far fetched?

No not at all. I work in pro boxing and except for the very best fighters most guys have day jobs. Duffy isn’t technically a social worker, he’s just a low level counselor. He’s also just an okay fighter, not a contender.

Duffy loses as much as he wins. He rarely gets the girl, he’s always about to be fired and he lives in a trailer. I think we can all identify more with that kind of character than the super hero type.

A guy who’s kind of a loser?

No, no, no—not even close. The unmistakable thing about Duffy is his determination and his sense of right and wrong. And it’s that sense that actually puts him in “losing” situations. He refuses to be a slave to paperwork and that almost gets him fired, he’s intensely loyal to his friends even when they don’t deserve it — but most of all he stands up for the vulnerable people who need it the most.

To me that’s a real hero.

Yet, his dog walks all over him…

Al is a basset hound and I live with three hounds. Almost everything that Al does in the book has happened to me. To me dogs represent what’s right. They’re loyal, they don’t give a shit about material things—and when they ruin your furniture—they force you to do the same. They have instincts about what the right thing to do is.

We would have fewer problems in the world if more people acted like dogs.

Why is Al, actually Allah-King, a Black Muslim basset hound?

He belonged to one of Duffy’s clients who was crack addicted. The o

nly time in her life that she got cleaned up was when she was in the Nation of Islam—what people know as the Black Muslims.

Al was being trained as a search and rescue dog with the Nation before he flunked out.

Boxing, social work, dogs, Schlitz—I get the sense you’re writing about what you know.

Well, yeah to some extent anyway. I’m a pro boxing judge and last year I did the world heavyweight title twice. I’ve worked in human services for over 20 years and I’ve got 3 dogs.

And the Schlitz?

…and I occasionally enjoy and adult beverage in moderation.

Which brings me to the Fearsome Foursome—the drunks Duffy hangs with. What’s their story?

First of all I don’t know if they’re drunks. They drink a lot but I’m not sure if that makes them drunks. I think there’s a difference.

I think men go through their lives with very few friends. These same four guys go to the same bar every night, sit in the same seats and argue about the same things. It’s what men do. If you asked them anything emotional about each other they’d look at you like you were crazy, but they’re as close as most men get.

I don’t think men get too intimate with each other. Bars are perfect because you sit shoulder to shoulder and you get your own space so you never really have to look anyone in the eye. These guys have a rhythm with each other and they offer each other company. That’s about all a man gets sometimes.

That, and they’re nuts like guys I know.

Are they based on real people?

When you’re in town, let me know…I’ll introduce you.