The best stories tell truths disguised as entertaining lies. But when a story starts with a lie, there is little truth in it left.
J. A. Konrath’s latest novel, SHOT GIRL, is the twelfth installment in his Jack Daniels series. Daniels, a retired cop confined to a wheelchair, spends her days in a rehabilitation facility along with her mother, enduring physical therapy and teaching firearms safety and the history of the Second Amendment to the elderly residents. Meanwhile, a disturbed teenager prepares to go down in history as the biggest mass murder in history. As a tropical storm descends on Florida, the retired cop must defend her charges from a wannabe active shooter.
It should have been a setup for a great novel. But it is tainted by the reek of politics.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics
The novel opens with a bold statement: “According to the best estimates, there are over one hundred thousand victims of gun violence in the US every year.”
A scary statement.
One pulled from Cosmopolitan magazine.
I’m not joking. When I went to look up that figure, the first hit was Cosmopolitan. No source cited. The next best source came from the Guardian, which cited an article published in medical journal Health Affairs.
Here is the relevant statement:
We identified 150,930 patients—representing a weighted total of 704,916 patients nationally—who presented alive to the ED in the period 2006–14 with firearm-related injuries.
Notice these terms: ‘firearms-related injuries’ and ‘presented alive’. In layman’s terms, this means someone who got shot but survived long enough to reach the hospital. Including people injured from negligent discharges, self-harm attempts, attempted suicides, and accidents.
‘Gun violence’ suggests a villain attempting to harm someone with a gun. This is not the same as ‘patients who presented alive with firearm-related injuries’.
Gun Violence Archive depicts a different story: about 34,000 people killed or wounded at the low end, 46,000 at the high end. Not including suicides.
A far cry from ‘one hundred thousand victims of gun violence’.
This isn’t the only erroneous fact either. Later in the story, the antagonist states this:
There have been over a thousand active shooting incidents worldwide in the last fifteen years, 95% of the US of A.
This is also a lie.
Between 2000 to 2013, the FBI identified 160 active shooters in the USA.
While the timeframe doesn’t quite match up, 160 is just 16% of ‘a thousand active shooting incidents’.
‘Active shooter’ is a specific term. According to the US government, it refers to “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a conﬁned and populated area”. In contrast, a ‘mass shooter’ is someone who shoots four or more victims in a single incident. These definitions affects statistics and reporting terms.
If we use the definition of mass shooters instead, the claim is revealed to be utterly inverted.
According to a study from the Crime Prevention Research Center, in the past 15 years there were 1448 mass shootings outside the United States.
Further, the paper adds,
By our count, the US makes up less than 1.43% of the mass public shooters, 2.11% of their murders, and 2.88% of their attacks.
I found the above information with just fifteen minutes of research on the Internet.
It’s clear that J.A. Konrath simply fished statistics that served his agenda and spread fear instead of looking for contrary information.
Finally, Konrath mentions a number of active shooting incidents in the US during the second chapter. I’m confident most of them were made up, while referencing real-life incidents. While describing one of them, the antagonist states that the shooter used an M14 rifle — and calls it a bolt action rifle.
An M14 is a battle rifle, capable of semiautomatic and full automatic fire. It is not a bolt-action rifle.
Ten seconds on the Net will confirm this.
The opening chapters of SHOT GIRL proves the old adage that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
A Failure of Craft
Popular fiction must entertain first. Without the element of entertainment, it becomes mere polemic disguised as a story. SHOT GIRL fails that test of craft.
The story begins with Jack Daniels delivering a lecture on firearms safety to her fellow residents, occasionally interrupted by immature sex jokes. Fortunately for the gun-minded reader, the information presented is accurate. Unfortunately, for the non-gunner, nothing happens.
The opening chapter is a disguised infodump. There are no stakes, no tension, just Jack Daniels lecturing the audience — and the reader. The sex jokes are particularly distasteful. They read as a lame and desperate attempt to keep the lecture from boring the reader too much. They don’t add any value to a valueless chapter.
The second chapter presents the antagonist’s perspective. In between more exposition about (fictitious) mass shootings and her own backstory, the antagonist reveals that she is unhinged, obssessed with mass shootings, and is intent on making history. Also, she is more fond of social media speak than most teenagers.
The third chapter has a bit of family drama, interrupted by Jack’s mother scolding her for improper gun storage. This is especially jarring: Daniels was a homicide detective and is now the resident gun safety expert; she of all people should know how to properly handle firearms. That Jack’s mother, a civilian with no prior described experience with firearms, points it out is also dissonant.
Yes, firearms instructors do make mistakes. But if this were a genuine mistake, Jack’s mother should have been harsher on Jack — and Jack in turn would realize the gravity of the error. Especially since she is the mother of a five-year-old.
Further, when Jack tells her the weapon is unloaded, her mother takes her words at face value. This is another gun handling mistake. Professionals always check firearms taking control of one, and never take someone else’s word for it. And an instructor like Jack will know that a gun is useless when unloaded.
Gun handling errors aside, there is another fatal flaw to this chapter: nothing happens. It is just a conversation between two women. Nothing in this story advances the story.
The blurb promises a confrontation between a disabled cop in a wheelchair and a psychotic active shooter. This means tension, excitement, suspense, drama. Not a gun safety lecture, the ramblings of a madwoman, and a low-key conversation.
Not only did SHOT GIRL pass off lies as facts, it can’t even meet the basic criteria of thrillers: to be thrilling. With so many factual and craft errors in so few chapters, I just don’t see a reason to keep reading the story.
Never Go Full Political
Hard left politics is creeping into fiction. It dominates Young Adult publishing and has established a stronghold in SFF. Now, it seems, it is infiltrating thrillers — a traditional right-wing bastion. And its mechanism is message fic. Fiction designed to shove a message into the reader’s face.
Readers hate message fiction. They read fiction to kick back and relax, not to have politics crammed into their brains. It’s not wrong to have politics in your fiction, but it must be an organic and integral component of the story. The story does not serve the politics; the politics must serve the story. And if the politics is founded on lies, it becomes naked propaganda — propaganda that turns off readers.
There are many avenues for writers to communicate their opinions to the world. Blog posts, magazines, journals, social media, and so on. People who are looking for such opinions will flock to these avenues and appreciate what you have to say. Cramming politics into stories serve only to turn off readers who just want to spend a leisurely hour away from the stress of the real world.
And for readers who will do the research, deliberately inserting lies into the story makes enemies of them.
Stories are about truth. The truth of the world and the truth of the writer’s vision. The best stories tell truths disguised as lies. But if a story is founded on lies, no amount of pretty words can make up for the absence of truth.
My own fiction, in stark contrast, either incorporates politics as an organic component of the story universe, or is stridently apolitical. If you just want an action-packed story about samurai slaughtering monsters in a world-spanning dungeon, check out my latest novel DUNGEON SAMURAI VOL. 1: KAMIKAZE.
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