The consequences of violence

Zoë Sharp

The violent events of this week in Manchester, which led to the deaths of two female police officers, have once again raised the debate in the UK about the routine arming of the British police.

At the moment, most branches of the police in the UK do not carry firearms and most, it would seem, prefer it that way. The president of the Association of Chief Police Officers has issued a statement saying he’s not in favour, that it distances the police from the community, and that officers lost to firearms incidents in other countries often do not get a chance to draw their weapons in any case.

In other words, if criminals know the police are armed, they tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

If you look at the figures provided by the National Police Memorial Day organisation (NPMD this year is September 30th), since 1945 a total of 256 police officers have been shot and killed in the UK and 21 have been stabbed to death. None of these deaths happened in Wales; four were shot and two stabbed in Scotland; 51 shot and 19 stabbed in England. But in Northern Ireland, where the police service IS routinely armed, 201 officers were shot dead.

In real life, I can see the advantages of allowing officers better means to protect themselves and the public, and equally I can see that arming the UK police as a matter of course is probably not the answer.

In fiction, though, it’s another matter.

One of the reasons I took Charlie Fox to work as a bodyguard in the States is that she is able to carry—and use—a gun, but I did not do this lightly. Yes, she has been forced to use a firearm in anger on numerous occasions. That ability to act with extreme violence when the need arises—both armed and unarmed—is part of the fabric of the character. She comes from a military background rather than from the police, and she’s working in an atmosphere where her opponents are likely both to be carrying and to be prepared to use all kinds of available weaponry against her.

More than that, she knows that when someone prepares to attack a target who has close-protection personnel the first rule is to take out the bodyguard. Her fast reactions, and her willingness to use whatever means necessary to defend her principal, is at the heart of her job. In FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine, I even have her throwing a horse at somebody. She is nothing if not inventive …

But although I was once accused of having a somewhat casual attitude to violence in my books, I feel I don’t treat the subject in a cavalier fashion. Violence has consequences, and that’s the way it should be. When Charlie gets injured, it damn well hurts. And it continues to hurt long after the event.

A broken sternum in one book still troubles her in the next. And when she is shot twice halfway through SECOND SHOT: Charlie Fox book six (and I’m not giving away too much there—the clue is kinda in the title) not only does she spend the rest of that book severely handicapped by her injuries, they have serious repercussions into the story that follows. I did not want her to take a round in the shoulder and leap up crying, “It’s just a flesh wound!” before beating the bad guys into the floor.

But at the same time I was aware that she was becoming reliant on having a gun to hand. So for the latest instalment, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book seven, she wasn’t going to have that luxury. This is my tribute to the Bruce Willis movie, Die Hard, which is one of my all-time favourites—mainly because of Alan Rickman’s inspired performance as the bad guy. So, I put Charlie into a situation where she is unarmed, cut off from support, and trying to make life hard for the bad guys while working out a way to rescue the hostages.

Although I had a ball writing it, all the time I was trying to keep the reader aware that violence has consequences. Not everybody will survive. Those that do will carry the reminders for a long time afterwards. This is not quite real life, but it’s not a cartoon either.

I know there’s been a trend in recent years for ultra-violent crime fiction—stuff that’s almost gore-porn. I want to make you feel it, but not to the point where you squirm. For me this is escapist entertainment, maybe with just a little hint of an underlying message.

So, where do you stand on violence in fiction, fellow ‘Rati? Should it be toned down, ramped up, or don’t you care if it fits with the story?

This week’s Word of the Week is verbivore, meaning someone who has an enjoyment of words and wordplay. From the Latin verbum meaning word, and vorax from voro meaning devour. It was coined in the 1980s by Richard Lederer, following along the same lines as carnivore and herbivore.

By the time my next ‘Rati blog comes around I shall be at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Cleveland Ohio. I hope to see many of you there. If you spot me before I spot you, please come and say “Hi!”. I’m on a panel at 11:30am on Friday morning—‘I Am Woman Hear Me Roar’ on protagonists that are kicking butt and taking names—moderated by Nora McFarland, with Sara J Henry, Jennifer McAndrews, Meg Gardiner and Taylor Stevens. Should be fun!

And finally, a little gentle BSP, if I may be so bold. I was honoured to be asked to contribute to the excellent MAKING STORY: Twenty-one Writers on How They Plot, available on both Amazon UK and Editor Timothy Hallinan has done a wonderful job of pulling all this disparate information together, and it should prove an invaluable resource.

22 thoughts on “The consequences of violence

  1. Jake Nantz

    I think the level of violence needs to fit the story, but shouldn't be the CRUX of the story. Here's what I mean:

    I read a book a few years back by a pretty well-respected writer, and several authors I know via internet (including at least one ex-merderato) recommended this book. When I got done, it occured to me that the story seemed ancillary. It felt like the whole rest of the book had been crafted just so the writer could depict a ritual castration in 3 chapters worth of detail. I have no problem with that level of detail (even about something so…um…yeah….), but it should never feel like the author focused so much on that one scene that the rest of the book was secondary.

    Just my .02

  2. Bobby Mangahas

    If the violence fits into the over all plot, sure. Fine. But having it in for the sake of, as you so eloquently put it Z, gore-porn, not so much. There is a fine art to portraying violence as "realistic" (ie getting injured and not being perfectly healthy one chapter later) and all out ridiculousness (ie those horrid Saw movies, which I myself have never seen nor have any desire to).

    Sorry I'll miss you at B'Con this year. Sadly my financing for that trip went kaput.

  3. David Corbett

    First, re: fiction: I was very graphic in DEVIL'S REDHEAD with my violence because — like you, Zoe — I wanted to make sure readers realized that violence hurts — as in maims, destroys — and has terrible consequences. It's seldom righteous and never redemptive.

    The hero in that book is a former pot smuggler who always considered violence a weakness, but the world's changed while he's been in prison for ten years and his decision to resist or embrace that change lies very much at the heart of the story. If you inflict violence you must be willing to suffer the pain of it. I was gratified that Marilyn Stasio got that. But I still hear sometimes from readers who were somewhat horrified.

    In the real world: We had a police officer killed in my hometown last November, and since then there have been seven officer-involved shootings, five fatal. The fatal shootings have all been since late May, so they're clustered and recent.

    The police staffing has been cut severely due to the city's bankruptcy, and the high foreclosure rate has served as a magnet for squatters — not just the homeless. Abandoned houses are being used for grow houses and meth labs and lowbrow bordellos. They're subsidized housing for burglary crews, some of whom gut the house for the copper, the tubing, the appliances. Armed robbery is way up. So the cops are edgy and the criminals know that so they're arming themselves too.

    The most recent shooting involved a parolee carrying a pellet gun — something they do to project a sense that they're armed on the street while not strictly violating the terms of their parole. The police claim he reached for that pellet gun during his arrest, and that's why they fired.

    But the African American community is rallying against the violence (all the victims are black or Latino, and nearly all the officers in town are white). Protesters have thronged the last two city council meetings and disrupted proceedings to where the council has had to retreat from the dais and the police have had to usher the protesters out.

    Some of the outrage is based on false impressions of what police officers can do or are trained to do in these kinds of situations. People think cops can "shoot to wound," which is a myth, and a great way to get even more people harmed. People also don't understand that cops aren't sharpshooters, and they aim for the biggest target because in the heat of the moment, that's the thing they're most likely to hit.

    The protesters want the FBI or the state AG to investigate the shootings. The mayor, who is African American, has gone to the AG — also African American — and requested such an investigation.

    But racial tensions are quite high in town as a result of the shootings and the politics of the situation. Unfortunately, I think those tensions are generating more heat than light.

    The head of the professional responsibility division at the police department — what we usually think of as internal affairs — is an officer i know well. He helped me with DONE FOR A DIME, and his parents once lived two doors down from me. I can'f think of anyone who would be less willing to let a bad shooting slide than this man. He's the rightest cop I know. But that doesn't seem to matter right now,

    I don't know how that figures into the UK debate, though the Northern Ireland analogy may seem apt. The divide there is religious, not racial, but the hatred is just as charged. Put weapons in that kind of environment, and it's war. And we all know what the first casualty of war is.

  4. Gordon Harries

    My father was a police officer for well over two decades and I have a number of fake uncles as well as personal friends still involved in law enforcement. As you can imagine, this has been the subject of some discussion this week. The notion of arming the police is madness. If for no other reason than to do so is going to force everyone to tool up to a degree they aren’t doing right now.
    There’s a couple of reasons this case has caught national attention. Firstly, it’s still a rare day when police officers are murdered in the U.K, secondly they were both woman (I honestly think the way this is being looked at would be slightly different it this was two guys) and thirdly there were grenades involved. It’s completely off-side.

    There’s a specific area of Manchester where people are known to get mugged by machete. I see no reason to grant a certain breed of criminal the licence to make things worse.

    As for violence in fiction. It’s about what level of reality the novel in question deals with, surely? To take DEVIL’S REDHEAD, as David already mentioned it, the moment that completely sold me on the story was when Abatangelo documents the beating that Shel took towards the end of the first section of the book. It’s not a scene that you see in many books, but the dawning horror of what she’s likely to live with (and it’s a horror that continues to dawn over the rest of the book) really underscored the point of the violence in the novel.

    I think that violence, in many ways, is one of the pivot points of the crime novel. Get it right and it’s likely to be one of the most mature things about the novel, get it wrong and whatever the author is trying to say (assuming he/she has something to say) gets lost amid a kind of sub-rambo machismo.

  5. Sarah W

    I'm leaving the gun control politics alone because my blood pressure has been doing well lately and I'd like to hang onto that as long as I can.

    I prefer that violence–physical and/or psychological–be a natural part the story, the characters, and the situation. I'm not much for shock lit or gore fests, but when brutality (or the graphic aftereffects) are used as punctuation instead of a prurient anatomy lesson, it works for me.

    Violence isn't Charlie's first choice, but she doesn't hesitate if it's necessary and she has the skills to back it up–but at a cost to her, as you said, both physically and psychologically. That's part of why she's one of my favorite characters.

  6. Tammy Cravit

    There's been a spate of officer-involved shootings in my community recently too, so this is timely stuff to think about. I won't comment on the gun politics here – though anyone with Google can figure out how I feel about the subject. I will say, though, that it seems to me police officers walk around with a great big target on their backs whether they're armed or not.

    As far as story violence goes, I've been on the receiving end of real violence enough times that the cavalier attitude some writers have toward it really bothers me. Real violence leaves us scarred, physically and emotionally, when we're lucky enough to survive it. When we don't survive it, our loved ones pay that emotional toll for lifetimes. Yes, violence is sometimes necessary – in defense of self or others (if we're fighting for ourselves), in defense of our protectees (if we're in Charlie's line of work), or in defense of society (for the cops and military). But "necessary" and "easy" are never the same, even for soldiers – just look at how many of them are coming back from the Middle East with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    The fact that people like Charlie are trained to put their emotions aside and keep fighting doesn't mean they don't feel those emotions later. Writers who treat violence casually cheapen what violence means for those who face it, and for those who need to use it. I have a huge problem with that.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    I’m not familiar with the book you mention, so I can’t comment on that one, but I get your meaning exactly. There’s a huge difference between graphic and gratuitous, and that sounds like a case of the latter as much as the former. If violence is a required―necessary―part of the story, then it should be there, but as you say it shouldn’t be the point of the story.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Bobby

    I’m sorry you won’t be in Cleveland, too, but there’s always next time. I’m not a big fan of slasher movies so I haven’t seen the Saw franchise, but it certainly seems to be popular. As for people being healthy a chapter after injury, I suppose you do have to bear in mind that everybody responds to injury differently. Some people really do have a higher pain threshold than others!

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David

    The violence in THE DEVIL’S REDHEAD has stayed with me since I read that book, and considering the number and type of books I tend to get through, that’s quite something. I think the main reason for it was the fact your story covers the downfall and imprisonment of your main characters. TDR dealt with consequences in a very big way, and was all the more powerful for that.

    As for what’s going on in your area at the moment, it sounds grim. I hope calmer heads prevail, but I fear that won’t be the case.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gerard

    Including Northern Ireland in the stats DOES skew things, but those figures WERE lumped in, and while I’m aware of lies, damn lies and statistics (which is why I broke the numbers down into area) nevertheless it was an interesting example of a branch of the UK police that does routinely carry firearms. Is this because they expect to be shot at, or are they shot at because they’re armed? Chicken and egg.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gordon

    I agree that the fact these were female officers is probably being used to bring more emotion to the situation, although I believe a life is a life, regardless of gender. It’s no more tragic to me that these were women than it would have been if they’d been young men. The use of grenades does, as you say, take it to a completely new level.

    Hmm, I try to stay the right side of the sub-rambo machismo. Whether or not I manage to do so is down to my readers to tell me …

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah

    Deep breaths, think calm thoughts!

    LOL, I wrote my reply to Gordon’s comment before I read yours. Thank you very much for the kind words! I take them as a huge compliment. 🙂

    How’s the blood pressure now?

  13. Gordon Harries

    Hi Zoe:

    I’d completely agree that a life is a life and irrespective of gender this is a horrific, horrific act. I just meant that this was being skewed a certain way.

    That said, this was possibly not the best forum to voice that opinion, so I apologize.


  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy

    I am strongly aware of the effects of violence, both on the people involved directly, and those who have to live with the consequences slightly removed. In the latest book, I explore the effects on someone close to Charlie―someone who’s always been able to put emotion aside in order to get the job done. But now things have changed, and what happens then?

    And the supernatural book I wrote this summer also deals with the effects of violence on those left behind, and what they might be prepared to do in order to feel some sense of closure, of justice. It is a wide-ranging and fascinating subject and it’s one of the reasons I remain a crime writer.

    I think you’re right―that being a police officer has never been tougher. They are expected to do their jobs with the constant apparition of societal approval or condemnation hanging over them. Like the military personnel who come back scarred both mentally and physically from their experiences when they’ve been doing their best to protect us, they deserve our support.

  15. Lisa Alber

    I don't mind violence, but I set aside books that begin with us in the psychopath's POV as he tortures a damsel in full and gory detail. Nope. That's doesn't do it for me. The violence in David's book didn't bother me because it was about so much more.

    And Zoe, I find Charlie's attitude toward violence realistic–which is to say well done. Basically, I'm agreeing with everyone else: germaine to the story? No problem.

    Have fun at Bouchercon! Wish I were going…

  16. Richard Maguire

    "I even have her throwing a horse at somebody" Really? FIFTH VICTIM is going immediately to the top of my TBR pile.

    Lovely photo of the horse, BTW. A stallion, I'd guess. Wouldn't want it landing on top of me.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gordon

    No apologies necessary!

    I try to stay away from politics as much as I can, but this goes a little further, I think, and all viewpoints are valid and welcome. Statistics can be made to work for whoever wants to manipulate them, and I agree that the figures for Northern Ireland probably do not take The Troubles into account. But nevertheless, whichever way you look at it, the number of police officers shot and killed on the UK mainland is thankfully very small.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa – I wish you were coming to B’con, too.

    So, it’s not so much violence you object to, it’s cliché? <grin>

    I think we’re all agreed that young Mr Corbett is a hell of a writer.

    And thank you for the kind words about Charlie, by the way.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Richard

    By coincidence, the section of FIFTH VICTIM I discuss and quote from in Tim Hallinan’s MAKING STORY is that very bit involving the fight where the horse plays a vital role.

    The horse is an Andalusian. I’d guess a stallion by the size of its neck 🙂

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