“Ilya did not turn away from the window…”
Last year, in a revealing profile of Al Pacino in The New Yorker, the actor’s agent said: “In his halcyon days he made around fourteen million a picture, but the industry’s changed. Nowadays, he gets five million. With a gun—seven million.” I love that extra two million dollars, which tells us so much about how the entertainment industry works, both for better and for worse. It’s safe to say that if the handgun didn’t exist, Hollywood would have been obliged to invent it: just as the cigarette is the ultimate prop for actors, the revolver is the perfect narrative device, and in both cases, unpleasant collateral consequences have arisen in the real world from what originated as a convenient storytelling tool. In my recent post about Friends and the logistics of set design, I pointed out that the homes we see on television shows are implausible large for a practical reason—they’re built to accommodate the blocking of a three-camera sitcom—but they can also affect the inner lives of viewers who come away with unrealistic expectations about how much house they can afford. Cigarettes and guns work in much the same way. They’re so useful to actors and writers that I don’t expect that they’ll ever disappear from our movies or novels, but there’s a troubling sense in which real people continue to make bad decisions because of the image these tools accidentally create.
I don’t mean to reduce the problems of smoking and gun ownership solely to the influence of the media: there are countless other factors at play here, and both issues are more complicated than either side likes to admit. But it’s safe to say that we think about cigarettes and guns more often than we otherwise would because actors and writers like to use them for purely pragmatic ends. For an actor nervous about what to do with his hands, a cigarette is inexhaustibly useful; for writers trying to figure out a story or a scene, a gun is equally valuable. Raymond Chandler’s famous advice—”When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns”—may be apocryphal, but it’s amply borne out in practice. Inserting a gun into a scene raises the tension level automatically: an otherwise routine conversation gains a modicum of interest if one character happens to be holding a revolver, even if there’s no explicit threat involved. A handgun can be used to solve narrative problems, and, more helpfully, to create them, as Chekhov knew. It’s violence or action in potential form, a symbol so potent that consumers can learn a lot from book cover or movie poster that displays a girl with a gun, sometimes clumsily photoshopped into place. And a big part of the reason we see so many stories about cops is that they’re among the few members of society who can go about their business with a pistol always at the ready.
And this troubles me, despite or because of the fact that gun violence—or just the use of guns as props—occurs so frequently in my own novels. From the very beginning of The Icon Thief, we’re treated to scenes in which a gun is present simply to send a message from one character to another, and, more subtly, from the author to the reader. And I do it because it works. As no less than Tennessee Williams once said to The Paris Review:
What shouldn’t you do if you’re a young playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing on stage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going any way you can.
Whether or not most suspense novelists have heard this particular admonition, there’s no question that they’ve taken it to heart. I don’t really blame them, any more than I blame myself: the number of useful tricks writers have is so limited that we’re often obliged to take the easy way out, if only to keep the story going in more important ways. But if we used fewer guns, we’d have to think harder. And occasionally, when I look back at my own work, I’m all too aware of the places where I’ve used violence or its threat as an impersonal device, just because my attention was elsewhere at the time.
Take, for instance, Chapter 31 of Eternal Empire. It’s a scene that consists almost entirely of the kind of talky exposition that I find hard to avoid, if only because it’s so central to the conspiracy genre. Maddy is on the phone with Powell and Adam, seated in the garden at Peles Castle, and after updating them on her progress so far, she receives an infodump about Gleb Boky, Alexander Barchenko, and the historical obsession of the Russian secret services with the myth of Shambhala. This is interesting stuff in itself, and it’s going to pay off later on. Still, it’s really just four pages of dialogue, so I heighten the tension in the most straightforward way I can: I establish in the previous chapter that Maddy is being watched through the crosshairs of a sniper’s rifle. It doesn’t require a single line of the scene itself to be changed—the gun, and the threat it presents, is kept completely offstage. Reading it over again now, I can’t quite decide if this represents an admirable act of narrative economy, a huge cheat, or both. (It’s a device that you see frequently in movies, like the Bourne films, since it allows a threat to be introduced from outside without the director having to worry about any particular problems of staging.) Obviously, Maddy survives the scene unscathed, and I don’t think there’s any real fear in the reader’s mind that she’s going to be dispatched here. But the rifle serves its purpose, even if I’d be happier if it didn’t have to be there at all…