To wrap up the Moonlighting for Murder theme week, Tom Schreck, author of the Duffy Dombrowski series, is here to talk about his choice of a boxing social worker as amateur sleuth.
Tom himself has spent his career in various social work positions. He's volunteered on a suicide hotline, he teaches psychology courses at a local community college and writes freelance. Tom isn't a pro boxer, but he does judge pro boxing and gets in the ring to spar when he can. That's all in addition to taking care of the three hounds that live with he and his wife.
Why a boxing social worker?
I fell in love with mysteries from reading, first the Travis McGee series by John D. Macdonald and then the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. I loved the first person narrative and I loved how cool the main characters were. They lived on 110 foot houseboats, drank exotic beers, were gourmets and had interesting genius friends.
I wanted to create a character equally as interesting but who was drawn from real life. I wanted someone without extraordinary skills who reached a breaking point when someone vulnerable was victimized.
I’ve worked in human services since 1984. Not in psychology, not in medicine—in human services. It’s where the blue-collar people wind up when they need help—usually because the legal system insisted on it. I’ve been a childcare worker with troubled ghetto kids, a teen age drug counselor, a counselor and salesman for a posh rehab and the director of an inner city clinic.
This kind of counseling isn’t the Freudian therapy Keith Ablow or Jonathan Kellerman write about. This is the therapy you get for stealing hair extensions at the dollar store after smoking too much crack. It’s real and it’s going on every day. The professionals who do it sometimes have degrees (I have a Masters) but often they have junior college educations or less. They are the heroes doing this work 40 hours a week often on lousy shifts for $23,000 a year.
Many of the clients in these clinics are unlikeable. They are dysfunctional and have little desire to change. They’re constantly scheming manipulative strategies to get their welfare check and beat the system. The clinics are driven to make sure they make their “number” so funding continues which makes the clinics complicit in the system’s dysfunction. The whole thing is a horror show.
But sometimes someone’s life gets turned around. Sometimes someone who wants to change does. Sometimes someone changes just enough to impact their spouse, their kids and the people surrounding their lives.
That is beautiful. That is the most important thing there is in life. That is what keeps human services working at a salary just above the poverty line.
Boxing is also a very central thing to my life. I’m typing this with a sore jaw and a low-level head ache from a well placed right hand that I took yesterday afternoon. My shoulders are tight and sleep will be hard to come by for the next couple of nights because of the soreness. I also judge professional boxing, getting the privilege to decide who wins world championship fights.
Ninety-nine percent of professional boxers make less than $2,000 from it. Yes, it’s professional sports and the very best make multiple millions but the vast majority do it because it’s in their blood.
Yesterday four of us got together to spar. Before it starts there’s a palpable unspoken anxiety in the gym. While it’s going on it’s truly breathtaking and when it’s over it’s the most exhilarating high I’ve ever experienced. I’d shoot it into a vein if I could.
Real life pro boxers have to work jobs. Some are educated; most aren’t so they do hourly gigs, labor and yes, human services. Those jobs don’t define them, their boxing does.
A person who’s been fighting for a long time has a presence. Other fighters can identify it but the general public will miss it. The fighters don’t play office games, get intimidated by being written up on the job or get macho when it comes to the board room. Men do that instead of fighting. Fighters see that shit as silly.
Boxers are real. Guys who really fight are a different type of animal. I’m not talking about someone who takes a boxing aerobics class or someone who learns how to hit a bag. I’m talking about someone who knows that feeling of waiting for the bell to ring knowing he’s about to get punched in the face.
Duffy Dombrowski isn’t Travis McGee or Spenser. His life has more grit and it’s uglier but it is the life that is lived on the streets of every city in this cruel country.
He often decides he’s not excepting that life and it causes him plenty of personal trouble. It also saves the lives and dignity of those who can’t do it on their own.
That’s what drives him.
He isn’t a Japanese assassin, an art appraiser or a CIA operative.
He’s a boxer and a human services worker.
That’s who he is.