When I started out, I sent one of the first Kepler stories I’d written to an unlikely zine. Entitled Plots With Guns, it had a simple premise: We want stories with a gun in it somewhere. One story, which wound up in a 2006 collection, centered on a nail gun as a murder weapon. My story, concerning PI Nick Kepler’s efforts to dispose of the corpse of a childhood friend’s abusive boyfriend, had a few aspects that might not have worked in, say, Thrilling Detective. You could feel the damp atmosphere of Nick’s lonely walk along a stretch of rural highway, the anger he had toward the doomed Joe Kopinsky after seeing fellow bar rat Angie’s bruises and black eye. The story also had a back-and-forth narrative, revealing more and more of why Nick was walking along Cleveland’s Route 3 on an April night. That, I did not know, was exactly what mastermind Anthony Neil Smith was looking for.
Neil and cohort Victor Gischler have a deep love of noir (before the term became meaningless) and unconventional story telling. As grad students in Mississippi in the days just before 9/11, they hatched an idea to present these tales of bleak situations, screwed characters, and occasionally novel revenge plots. How unconventional? Consider that Gischler’s debut novel begins with the murder of a gang boss by planting a blasting cap in his cream stick (which is both horrifying and the funniest thing I’d ever read up to that point.) Plots With Guns was mostly Neil. Vic came along for the ride, but Neil needed more hands-on help and recruited various partners in crime. Along the way, he discovered a few writers who’s profiles in the crime fiction community rose in the middle of the last decade, including some idiot from Cincinnati named Winter. But I refer to guys like J. Michael Blue, a refugee from the old Blue Murder zine, Ray Banks, Ed Linskey, and Kent Gowran. It was via Plots that I became aware of an Irish writer named Ken Bruen, who for many years would be a sound friend and mentor.
Neil shut down the zine late last decade, deciding it was time to move on. New zines, like Thug Lit, arose, but the call was too strong. Neil had to resurrect it once his life in Minnesota settled and he reached a groove with his Billy LaFitte novels. Eventually, he recruited new acolytes to run the zine while taking on the role of publisher.
Plots may or may not continue under a new publisher in the coming years. I hope it does. It’s a different type of storytelling, one that would make Tarantino proud. Crime fiction needs a little “Fuck you” to keep it honest. Plots With Guns has always provided that.