My guest blog on the responsibility of crime novelists for the violence we depict
I’ve only fired a gun on a single occasion, though guns have frequently been pointed at me. Still, in my writing, I’ve blown away many a bad guy and just as many good guys.
I write crime fiction. In crime fiction bad things happen. Often involving guns. It’s much like life. Except that it’s not.
Every time there’s a mass shooting, like Elliot Rodger’s murder of six people May 23, I go through the manuscript of my latest novel and take a long, hard look at myself. Most writers—like TV producers or movie directors—are quick to deny any connection between the violence that appears in their art and real violence. I don’t think of crime fiction readers as a particularly dangerous bunch, but still I’m not so glib.
Perhaps that’s because I’ve seen a lot of actual violence, as a war correspondent. I mentioned that people had pointed guns at me. Here’s a brief list: Hamas gunmen in Gaza, PLO militiamen in Hebron, Israeli soldiers all over the place (including one who pointed the barrel of his tank at me), Hizballah gunmen in southern Lebanon and Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, an Iraqi guy in Jordan, and a couple of people whose identities I really don’t know in Nablus, West Bank. You get the idea.
Winston Churchill wrote that “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” I can vouch for that too. (Nablus again, where I found myself running through narrow casbah alleys to escape gunfire whose source I simply couldn’t see). It’s one reason why there’s violence in crime fiction. It isn’t only that bad guys really do use violence. Crime fiction also gives us a sense of the Churchillian buzz, as if the violence was directed at us and we were escaping it, like our novel’s hero.
Many of my experiences on the wrong end of a gun barrel came when I was a foreign correspondent for Time Magazine during the Palestinian intifada from 2000 to 2006. Afterwards, I wrote four crime novels about a Palestinian sleuth named Omar Yussef. I made sure that my hero was too aged and infirm to take the path of violence that attracted so many of his compatriots. I wanted him to face down the gunmen without the option of blowing him away. That’s far more inspiring.
I’ve thought hard about the way I write about guns, and I’ve examined other thriller writers’ approaches too. Certainly I think it’s possible for writers to glamorize violence and gunplay. Brad Thor’s email newsletter includes a “gear” link to a snazzy jacket in which you’re invited to carry your iPad, iPhone and handgun, as though a Glock were just another yuppie gadget.
I’m about as sympathetic to that as I am to techies who describe the screens of their Apple devices as “beautiful.” Like cellphones, guns are functional, not beautiful.
I decided not long ago I ought to know what that function feels like. I had never even fired a gun. I went to a basement range in Jerusalem and rented a range of weapons. It was truly fascinating to feel the difference between the popping reports of a 9 mm and the heavy kick of a Magnum, which actually hurt my thumb after cocking it a few times (poor baby.)
My trainer got very excited and decided to give me a treat. He clipped a Glock inside an Israeli Tabor conversion. My pistol was suddenly transformed into an assault weapon with a red laser sight. Hitting the center of the target with that gun was easier than typing this sentence. Wherever the red dot went, so did the bullet. Many times I had wandered through conflict zones, knowing that there were gunmen about and blithely figuring they wouldn’t shoot and if they did they’d probably miss. I started to imagine that red dot on my body and it made me a little queasy.
Now I’m working on a new series about a US agent. Unlike my Palestinian sleuth, this guy will be armed. The Isla Vista killings—and the many less-publicized school shootings since—remind me yet once more that I have to examine the ethical framework for everything my main characters does. After all, an actual government agent must answer for his conduct every time he draws his weapon. So must a fictional one.
I want to be sure that no reader will come away from my books with the idea that violence is just a lifestyle option, let alone a heroic one.
(I wrote this for Mystery Fanfare, Janet Rudolph’s wonderful crime fiction blog.)