I’m thrilled to say that my next guest on the Crime Cafe podcast is going to be mystery author Richard Helms! Rick used to own an online periodical, The Back Alley Webzine, and he actually published one of my short stories therein. That short story went on to be nominated for a Derringer Award in 2010! So long ago, but I still remember my
utter shock surprise and pleasure at having the story noticed by anyone nominated. 🙂
On a personal note, I think Rick raises very interesting food for thought in this post. Matters that should concern not only crime writers, but those who consume the stories in this genre.
As part of his guest post here, Rick is offering three glossy-bound copies of his short stories to a lucky winner who enters the giveaway described at the end of this post. Read on for the instructions on how to enter the contest.
And now, without further ado, let’s hear from the man himself—Richard Helms!
The Responsibility of Writing
I am a writer.
Sometimes, in a fit of narcissism, I have the audacity to call myself an author.
I am not a household name. You may not be aware of my work, but that’s the case with 95% or more of authors in this country. I write mostly in the mystery and thriller genres. I have had eighteen novels published, though most of them are now out of print. My short stories regularly appear in national magazines. I have been privileged to receive fourteen major mystery and thriller award nominations, and three wins.
Like most authors, I barely make enough money each year from writing to pay for a decent family vacation. Even so, I am happy with my lot, and comfortable in my little niche of the business.
In late 2015, I finished novel number nineteen, Paid In Spades, which will be published this summer by Clay Stafford Books out of Nashville, and I think it’s a corker. However, it ends with a huge gun firefight involving many deaths. Around the same time, I finished a short story (“The King of Gonna”), which will appear in the May/June issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, in which one character ventilates another’s backside with a rock salt shotgun load. Both of these stories are pretty good, but they kept me awake at night deliberating over whether I could have found more original climaxes for them.
As I was finishing these two works, the news was filled with an all-too familiar story. A gunman had invaded Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, killing ten people. As I was about to submit the novel to my publisher at the time, there was another mass shooting in San Bernardino, which resulting in the deaths of sixteen people and left nineteen horribly injured. Having only recently written about gun battles using advanced military-style automatic weapons, I began to wrestle with my conscience.
Writers are artists. We paint with words, compose with phrases, and manipulate language to evoke passions in our readers. We mine our fears, frailties, and triumphs, and transfer them to the page, as an actor explores his own joyful and tragic experience to breathe life into a role. Our scribblings reflect our own ideas and values. When we stray from those values, writing is no longer genuine, and our work becomes hypocritical and dishonest.
Over the last several months of 2015, I was troubled by national events. By early December of that year, we had experienced 355 mass shootings in the USA over the first 336 days of the year. That was more than one per day. Our legislators refused to do anything to curb the mounting tidal wave of firearm violence and death, and in fact continue to do nothing to this day. We are all reeling as I write this, after another senseless school shooting that has left seventeen bright, promising teenagers and teachers dead. They’re gone. They will never return. This isn’t television, where the actor who is shot to death this week will show up in a guest role on another show in a month. These people’s lives are over, because a troubled young man thought he could make his world righteous with the relative firepower of a small country.
Besides being a writer, I am a psychologist. I know crazy when I see it, and was licensed by my state to diagnose it for over thirty years, before I retired in 2016. I am all too familiar with psychological and emotional pathology.
Our love affair with firearms in this country is pathological.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, in 2013, the use of firearms resulted in 33,169 deaths in the United States. An additional 84,258 people were injured by firearms. Epidemiological data indicates that firearms were the cause of 1.3% of all deaths in this country. That’s more than the percentage of deaths caused by any of the following: colorectal cancer, liver cancer, esophageal cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cirrhosis of the liver, lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, meningitis, Parkinson’s disease, or hepatitis.
If we had a disease that killed or permanently maimed over 117,000 people in the United States each year, there would be a foundation devoted to curing it. In the United States, however, we have the National Rifle Association, a marketing lobby for the firearms manufacturers. Let’s face it—the American Cancer Society’s mission isn’t to give everyone in the United States cancer, but the NRA’s sole motivation is to sell as many guns as it can, because that enriches the arms dealers who fund it.
In my opinion, the gun laws in this country are wholly inadequate. We are the only industrialized country in the world without sweeping and comprehensive laws controlling firearms.
One thing is clear—according to CDC and FBI records, those states with the loosest gun laws and easiest access to firearms also have the highest rates of firearm-related deaths per capita. There is a demonstrated positive correlation between restrictions on gun ownership and reductions in gun deaths. I strongly believe that the framers of the Constitution never intended for a single individual to possess enough firepower to take out a classroom of children in seconds. I fervently believe that if they could see the unintended consequences of their Second Amendment, they would shake their heads in dismay and rethink their original intent.
But I’m not interested in debating gun laws or the Constitution here. That’s not the purpose of this article. I’m more interested in the role I, and my fiction, might play in suggesting to people that the use of guns to settle their differences might be acceptable.
In the interest of writing realistic crime fiction, authors pore over details of gun construction and operation. We go to firing ranges to test various weapons so we can correctly describe the ‘feel’ of discharging a gun. We attend conferences and workshops moderated by law enforcement officers and federal agents to learn procedures and tradecraft. Then we write—often in excruciating detail—scenes of violence involving guns purely for the entertainment of our readers, and in the process we pass along this information to those readers, along with a covert message that this sort of behavior is okay.
It isn’t okay.
After reading about the tragic and criminal killings in Oregon and California, and after reviewing the data on firearm-related killings in this country over the recent past, I reached a crisis of conscience.
How could I condemn these acts while I perpetuated the notion in my stories that killing people with guns is a justifiable act? To what degree am I contributing—however marginally—to the very problem with guns that I deplore in this country? And, if I continued to purvey the message that gun violence is an honorable way to settle our differences, didn’t that make me the hypocrite?
Throughout their lives, my wife and I have taught our children to be the change they want to see in the world. By the end of 2015, it was time to take my own advice.
I made a public statement at the end of 2015. No more. I would no longer contribute to the culture of gun violence in this country with my writing. Never again would I allow my protagonists to settle their differences with firearms. From this point forward, I would never again write a story suggesting that gunplay is an acceptable solution to a problem. I believed that I could write effective, compelling, and entertaining fiction without resorting to a gunfight at the end, gratuitously inserted because it’s easy and exciting. I would no longer allow my art to be part of the problem.
This was a big challenge. Over the years, my protags had killed dozens of people with guns. Writing blazing gun battles had gotten me a fair number of high profile mystery/thriller award nominations, and a couple of wins. I was pretty good at depicting mass ventilations using guns.
Why did I make this decision? I am a scientist, and I trust scientific data. A researcher named Ed Donnerstein has demonstrated time and again that exposure to fictionalized violence lowers our threshold for acceptance of that violence, and increases our potential to act aggressively ourselves. Exposure to nonstop gun violence makes us more accepting of gun violence as a solution to our problems, and disinhibits gun use against others. As writers—whether it’s books or television or motion pictures—we teach by modeling and by example. If we portray gunplay as acceptable, our readers and viewers learn that it is acceptable—especially if our readers or viewers are young and impressionable, and their brains are still cooking. Albert Bandura demonstrated long ago in his famous ‘Bobo Doll’ studies that children are especially likely to learn by example and modeling. When they see adults acting out violently, they internalize the message that acting violently is okay.
It is not okay.
The last two stories I wrote in which the protagonist uses a firearm against an adversary will be published this summer. That’s the end of it. In the last two years, I have written four novels. In none of them does the protagonist settle his issues with a firearm. There is violence, yes, but it is not gun violence, and it is not deadly violence. My protagonists no longer kill their adversaries. I don’t want such killings to be seen as acceptable. There is nothing heroic in parking an ounce of lead between a bad guy’s eyes.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, they’re pretty fucking awesome books, too, even without the protag filling the air with hot lead.
There is something seriously wrong with a country in which multiple school shootings since the first of the year is considered the new normal. A society that considers the massacre of children as an acceptable cost of ‘freedom’ is a sick, twisted society that has abdicated it’s claim to moral superiority—one it never deserved in the first place. When our legislators can’t take their collective cock out of the NRA’s mouth long enough to look around and realize they are the true monsters, because they not only allow the carnage but support its continuation, then we are a nation headed toward irreversible decay.
I’m not trying to start a movement. I’m not insisting—or even requesting—that my brothers and sisters in the mystery/thriller world follow my example. As I said, this is a crisis of conscience, and my conscience will not allow me to continue writing the same gun violence I have in the past, as long as a single person’s life in this country is taken needlessly by some gun humper with firepower greater than the depths of his soul. This is a personal decision, intended to help me sleep better at night.
It may amount to no more than a droplet in a cascade, but the effort to reverse the avalanche of gun violence in this country has to start somewhere.
Under my roof, it starts with me.
I am happy to invite all the readers and viewers of Crime Cafe to enter a drawing for three glossy-bound autographed short stories. Each of these stories—“Paper Walls/Glass Houses”, “The Gospel According to Gordon Black”, and “The Gods for Vengeance Cry”—won either the Derringer Award or the ITW Thriller Award. In addition, “The Gods for Vengeance Cry” was nominated for the Derringer Award and the Macavity Award. I will send all three printed and bound short stories to a randomly selected entrant. All you need to do to enter is send an email to WriterRickHelms[at]aol[dot]com, with the header “Contest Entry”, and your name and address in the body of the email. All entries must be posted by midnight on March 6. I will announce the winner of the short stories after a random drawing from the entries.
After a twenty-year career as a clinical/forensic psychologist, and ten more years as an associate professor of psychology, Richard Helms retired to become a full-time writer in August, 2016. He currently has published eighteen novels, though most are now out of print, but still available as ebooks. He is a frequent contributor of short stories to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and selected anthologies. He has been nominated six times for the SMFS Derringer Award, with two wins (both in 2008), five times for the PWA Shamus Award, twice for the ITW Thriller Award, with one win (2011), and once for the MRI Macavity Award. He will have an Eamon Gold short story entitled “The King of Gonna” in the May-June issue of EQMM this year, and his newest novel, Paid In Spades, featuring his Shamus, Derringer, Macavity, and Thriller Award-nominated New Orleans jazz musician and P.I without portfolio Pat Gallegher, will be published in the summer of 2018 by Clay Stafford Books