Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mysteries Without Guns

Elizabeth Zelvin

I have recently started working on the first draft of my fifth manuscript featuring my amateur sleuth, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, and his friends, Jimmy the computer genius and Barbara the addictions counselor and world-class codependent. Bruce, Jimmy, and Barbara live in New York City. They are not sheltered from the seamy side of life. During their drinking days, Bruce and Jimmy were not always in control of what they did and often suffered from impaired judgment. Their dark past included acts from turnstile jumping in the subway to purchasing illegal drugs to removing a priceless painting from the wall of a museum. No, they didn’t take it anywhere; they were just horsing around while in an altered state. And of course, now that they are both clean and sober in AA, they would never dream of doing such a thing.

Nor is Barbara an innocent, after working in addiction treatment programs from the Bronx to the Bowery. As she herself enjoys recalling, she has hugged cops and murderers, either professionally or as an imperfectly recovering member of Al-Anon, the program where people with alcoholic loved ones try to learn to stop controlling others and mind their own business. In Barbara’s case, it’s a good thing that members of 12-step programs are never expected to graduate.

In general, I’m not that interested in the technology of murder. When the victims in my stories have to die, I like to hit them on the head or push them down the stairs. Occasionally I’ll strangle them with a convenient household object. I want to get it over quickly so that I can get on to the real business of the story: the investigation and, even more fascinating to me, the relationships among my characters.

A couple of years ago, I took advantage of a Sisters in Crime field trip to spend a day learning to shoot a handgun. It was extremely cool—in the same way hugging those cops and murderers is for Barbara—and I enjoyed the day. I even put a few bullets, if not in the bullseye, well within the circle. They let me take home the paper target to prove it. At the time, I figured that now that I’m a mystery writer, sooner or later my characters will have to pick up a gun, so I’d better know at least the rudiments of what to do and how it feels to use one.

Now I’m not so sure. So far, neither Bruce nor his sidekicks has encountered a gun, even when facing my murderers. And it is possible that I may never introduce a gun into a book in this series. How can I do that? How can I write occasionally gritty crime novels set in New York City without including firearms? Easily. I can do it by allowing art to imitate life.

I just got my Medicare card, which means I’ve lived in the Big Apple for 65 years. And I don’t know anyone who owns a gun. I exclude the police officers I’ve met in the course of both my mental health professional and mystery writing careers in the past few years. Some of them may own weapons, for all I know. But my family and friends and colleagues, thousands of people over a lifetime, have lived their whole lives in New York without laying hands on, in most cases never even seeing a gun. Until that field trip to New Jersey, I don’t think I’d ever seen a gun, except as a butt sticking out of a holster on a cop’s hip in the subway. My parents came to New York in 1905 and 1906 and both lived into their 90s, and I’m sure they never saw a gun. They certainly never touched one.

No, I can think of one exception: back in the Seventies, I visited a friend for a weekend at a genuine English country house. No, there was no murder. No butler, even. I did fall in love briefly, so the weekend wasn’t a total disappointment. But I digress. The house was in Kent, which is known for the growing of hops for English beer. Evidently squirrels are significant consumers of hops, so they are considered vermin. I was quite shocked when on Saturday afternoon, several of the young people present took shotguns, or maybe they were rifles, and came back bearing the bodies of several squirrels exactly like those with whom New Yorkers live and let live in Central Park.

What are your favorite mysteries without guns? How necessary do you think they are? Have I shaken your conception of New York City even a little? Please leave a comment if I have.


Paul Lamb said...

I think there is all sorts of evil that men can do (and women) beyond simply murder. If, as you say, the interesting part of the story is the investigation and not necessarily the crime, then I think satisfying mystery stories can be wrought without murder and mayhem. Blackmail, burglary, even hate crimes can set a story rolling, and none needs invove a gun. #1 Ladies Detective Agency is a prominent example. Ian Sansom's comedy mystery novels involve a librarian, and the first story involved missing library books! Doyle said that most of the Sherlock Holmes stories did not involve murder and many did not even involve a crime.

Feeding the Grey Cells said...

New Yorkers without guns? I imagine that here in the midwest (where hunting is a past time shared by many) there are more people that own guns than New Yorkers.

As to fictional murders without guns, fine by me, if I wanted that I could just watch the news right?

Sandra Parshall said...

I've told this story before, so bear with me if you've heard it ad nauseum. My first book, The Heat of the Moon, has no guns (although there's a scene involving a knife), and the mystery isn't a murder. For that reason, New York editors said it had little tension and suspense and would never attract an audience. Poisoned Pen Press took a chance on it, and guess what readers have been telling me ever since? That it's so suspenseful they sat up late to finish it.

I believe -- I *know* -- plenty of readers can appreciate a book without guns and forensics and copious bloodshed. Publishers are afraid of books like that, though, unless they're cozies with hooks.

The success of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series is a beautiful testament to the willingness of many readers to accept something new and different IF -- and it's a big if -- publishers will provide it and promote it sufficiently to bring it to readers' attention.

Anita Page said...

For me "who" and "why" are much more interesting than "how." So I agree, guns aren't necessary in a good mystery. Actually, my favorite weapon lately is a handy cast iron frying pan. And my favorite crime novel that didn't involve a gun or even a murder is, of course, Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night.