Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Author Mark Terry –”Tough Guys”

As you all know, I just wrote a review on Mark Terry’s wonderful new thriller “The Valley Of Shadows” Easily the best thriller I have read in awhile and the best of the year. It is mart, slick, fast and furious and features Mark’s series character Derek Stillwater. Now Derek is a really smart guy, he is a doctor. The PhD kind and holds that degree in biochemistry which comes in handy as he is a bioterrorism expert for the Department of Homeland Security. But, Derek is also a tough guy. he is hardboiled, and I drew a comparison between him and Philip Marlowe in the review.

This morning on Facebook, Mark asked “who should play Derek in a movie?” I thought Daniel Craig of James Bond fame would be excellent. Then I invited Mark to guest blog on “Tough Guy’s”.


Tough Guys

By Mark Terry

I like fictional tough guys – Spenser, Hawk, Elvis Cole, Joe Pike, Tres Navarre, Gabriel Allon, Lucas Davenport, Virgil Flowers.

When I was thinking about this, though, I had to throw in the fact that one of my favorite authors is the late Dick Francis. Francis wrote mystery/thrillers that all dealt in some way or another with horse racing and just off the top of my head his main characters were professional jockeys or amateur jockeys, but they were also caterers, chefs, glassblowers, meteorologists, computer programmers, painters, freelance writers, insurance adjusters, filmmakers, bookies, architects, soldiers, private eyes…

And yet…

Someone once asked me what I liked about Dick Francis’s characters and I said they were all fundamentally decent. Mostly they’re normal people who find themselves in over their heads. The jockeys all seem to take physical punishment and recuperate quickly in a way that would make my own series character Derek Stillwater proud.

As a general rule, Francis’s men are not violent men, although some are soldiers or PIs.

So what do they have in common with all of those guys I mentioned in the first sentence?

Merriam-Webster gives a lot of definitions for toughness, and I think the one that most people use when describing tough guys would be “capable of enduring strain, hardship, or severe labor.” Perhaps they might also think of “marked by absence of softness or sentimentality.”

Ironic, when I think of that last one. Is Spenser sentimental? Uh, yeah, I think so. Elvis Cole? Probably. Tres? Yes. Gabriel Allon? Yes. Probably not Davenport or Flowers, although I don’t know. Maybe they are.

Toughness, Wikipedia, tells me, in materials science and metallurgy, is “the ability of a material to absorb energy and plastically deform without fracturing.”

When it comes to tough guys in fiction, what I lean towards, actually, is the materials science and metallurgy definition. Great tough guys can take whatever’s handed to them and dish it back without breaking.

That doesn’t mean they don’t change. I think they do. They may grow an even tougher skin and harder outlook, but that may just make their human side – perhaps their sentimental side – seem all the more apparent by comparison.

Although I don’t think I want to psychoanalyze Derek Stillwater too much, I do note that as the books progress, the more the divide between the violence he experiences and dishes out creates a chasm in his psyche with the more normal, “good guy” side of him. The psychological term for this is “cognitive dissonance” or, back to Wikipedia, “an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.”

That, I think, makes him human. It makes him complicated. The side of Lucas Davenport that can take down a serial killer without much remorse, is a significant comparison to the side that lives in a big house in Minneapolis with his surgeon wife, young son and adopted daughter. They understand, at least, that the tough guy part’s not the only part.

So I’m interested. Who are your favorite tough guys and why do you like them?



There you go. Who are your favorite tough guys? Be sure to order up your copy of The Valley Of Shadows but I warn you, you want the other Derek Stillwater books after reading it. And Mark writes some great stand alones.


The Dirty Lowdown


  1. Thanks Mark. To me the best "tough guys' in fiction were those who understand and accept that you win some and you lose some, but you get back up and continue onward. They have a native intelligence, if not an education. Philip marlowe had been to college and studied chess. They are also more concerned with "right and wrong" as opposed to "legal and illegal" They are able to navigate that gray area between the authorities and the bad guys. They usually have a private code of honor or morals that they adhere to.They aren't always physically imposing; take Hammett's Continental Op. he was described as kind of a dumpy, middle aged guy. but he could handle himself. Derek Stillwater is one of my favorite tough guys. he is smart, but he can also get down and dirty to get the job done.

  2. Hi Robert - great post as always.
    Hi Mark,
    It's a good point you make about Dick Francis. That's what I always liked about his books. The jockey, or marksman, or whatever was just an ordinary guy. One of the things I think worked extremely well for Francis was the fact that the protagonists were put in difficult situations and not only got out of it - usually in a surprising way - but they also learned something about themselves in the process. That adds depth to the character and makes it more real. It also makes their toughness more real, because the main character is just the guy in the street, who's picked upon and ends up kicking the you-know-what out of the other fellow because he's forced to, not because he is by nature a thug.

    It's a good point of discussion.



  3. Hi Sean, Thanks for stopping by. I think the tough guys I have always enjoyed, or identified with were those "every man" types. Walter Mosley's EZ Rawlins, Crais Elvis Cole (although Elvis is a bit of a wack every man)Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder. I think the best tough guys are a bit flawed, life hasn't always been kind. Course, it doesn't hurt when you are one of those guys mentioned above to have an almost alter ego show up to really kick some butt. EZ has Mouse, Elvis has Joe Pike, Harry Bosch is pretty much on his own, but Matthew Scudder has Mick Ballou all of these guys have the ability to dish out violence almost at super hero levels. But it is the protagonist that pretty much fits in to everyday life, but is capable of dealing with the extraordinary that I like.

  4. I have to say one of my favorite fictional characters is Alex Cross from Author, James Patterson. Alex deals with whatever comes his way, no matter how the cards are dealt him, he handles his hand and makes his move accordingly. And, he has a sensitive side to humanize him, but he's tough in every sense of the word. Love that character. Dynomite!


  5. I had forgotten about Alex. And he is one of those quiet tough guys, also smart Good one.

  6. I have to add Jack Reacher to the list of tough guys! Reacher is built like a tank, is a loner, is always on the move, but has a deep sense of right and wrong!

  7. Jack Reacher is that. 6'5" and what 250? But at the same time he was a military officer which implies he has college, so he isn't just a mindless beast. Plus he has that deep, uncompromising sense of honor.

  8. Great discussion.

    There's a moral code, for sure. Spenser is probably the epitome of that.

    I interviewed Michael Connelly once (yeah, name drop) and I made a comment that in some ways Bosch must be kind of easy to write because he brings conflict with him wherever he goes. Michael said, "Yeah, have baggage, will travel." He's that kind of character that would make life easy for himself and everyone else if he would just occasionally do things somebody else's way, but he'd be a lot less interesting if he did.

    Sean - I think the fact that the majority of Dick Francis' novels were standalones made that kind of character arc a lot easier. One of the tricks of series fiction is to not change the character so much that people will want to come back to them book after book. So they can grow, but the changes should generally be more incremental than you'd typically get in a Dick Francis novel.

    Kiwes - I liked Alex Cross (and James Patterson) a lot for the first few books, but he lost me with Pop Goes The Weasel. That was just such a strange book.

    I recently read a Jack Reader novel, Gone Tomorrow, and what I marvel about the Lee Child novels I've read is the extent to which Reacher is wrong throughout the course of the novels. He takes the evidence as he sees it and creates a scenario of it that makes sense, then is constantly being proved wrong, and he keeps changing the scenarios as he gets more information. And yet Child gives the impression that Reacher is really on top of things, but I'm always hit by the fact that by the end Reacher's story is so different. Makes for a lot of surprises for the reader.

  9. Jack Reacher in many ways reminds me of an old Gold Medal series character from the late 50's and 60's Dan J. Marlowe's Johnny Killain. A mountain of a man who held the most unlikely of jobs for a tough guy. Bell Boy or Bell Captain in a hotel who solves murders and runs over the top of cops and mobsters alike. He is not Sherlock Holmes, and like Reacher seems to sometimes bull his way through the China closet.

  10. One thing Reacher and Derek Stillwater have in common, at least from a book point of view, is setting. PI fiction is, etc., is often noted for geography - Elvis Cole & Joe Pike & Harry Bosch are LA, and LA is almost a character it their books; Spenser is Boston; Tres Navarre is San Antonio and Austin, etc.

    Reacher's a drifter, so there are no real sidekicks and the setting changes from novel to novel. Stillwater's job takes him from location to location, and I've avoided regular sidekicks. That creates its own set of problems, but I understand why Lee Child chose it that way.

    Which is interesting, when we talk about Dick Francis, because even though the characters are quite similar, and there's always some element related to horse racing, often it comes from very strange angles and the character has a real mix of careers. My favorite is To The Hilt. The main character is a painter. Straight is also a good one, where the main character is a jockey who gets injured, and his brother dies and the jockey tries to sort out his brother's life while recuperating. His brother was a gem broker (no diamonds) for jewelers, etc., and so the main character is learning all about the gem business.