Writing Crime Fiction in the Midst of the Gun Control Debate
In my new novel, Boise Longpig Hunting Club, one of my protagonists is an arms dealer; the other is a bounty hunter. The narrative features a lot of guns, to say the least.
When researching a new novel, I like as much firsthand experience as possible with whatever my main characters do. In the case of this work, however, the featured weapons far exceeded what you’d find on a typical range — one character uses a rocket launcher, for example. For my descriptions of this kind of heavy-duty firepower, I relied on friends with the right background, all of whom were only too happy to point out where I was being unnecessarily cinematic in my descriptions. (If you write anything violent, you can never go wrong with having someone with military or police experience giving your manuscript a read-through.)
Last summer, just as I was wrapping up the first draft of “Boise Longpig,” I talked with editor Eric Beetner about having a story in Unloaded Volume 2: More Crime Writers Writing Without Guns. As the title suggests, the anthology’s authors could weave all the mayhem they wanted into their short stories — they just had to do it without firearms. (Volume 1, which came out in 2016, was nominated for an Anthony Award.) “As the mass shootings continue, the avoidable accidents, the suicides, the gun violence that consumes our country rolls on unabated and unaddressed by our leadership other than to say, ‘Now is not the time to discuss it,’ these crime writers have chosen to start the dialogue,” reads the jacket copy.
For my contribution to the collection, I opted to poison my victim; I drew a lot of personal history into the narrative, and it ended up being an unexpectedly cathartic experience. But plotting the intricacies of a slow murder also made me think about how much I use guns in my novels and short stories — especially “Boise Longpig,” where protagonists and antagonists end up firing more ammunition than the entire Mexican Revolution.
Whatever our personal feelings about guns, do crime-fiction writers rely on them too much as a crutch? As Raymond Chandler himself once wrote: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” A pistol or rifle is an easy way to eliminate a villain, move beyond a plot impasse, and inject massive amounts of drama very quickly. But that ease can come at a considerable cost; we don’t press ourselves to get inventive.
The recent debate over gun control has added another wrinkle to this issue. Do crime writers whose fiction relies heavily on guns have a responsibility to acknowledge that debate, either as text or subtext? Different writers’ mileage may vary on that front, but in the wake of “Unloaded,” I found myself moderating the second draft of “Boise Longpig.”
For example, in the first draft, one of my main characters referred to an AR-15 in his home armory as a “plaything.” It was a small detail, but seemed excessively frivolous, so I altered it in the rewrite. On a broader level, I made my characters more attentive to weapons safety. I didn’t alter the gun-battles that mark the second half of the book, but I made sure that I wasn’t fetishizing firearms.
However the national discussion over gun control ends up going, it will likely drive some debate within the crime-fiction community; some novelists may make different narrative decisions, as I did. Choosing to use guns is fine — but choosing not to use them may drive you to more inventive alternatives.