Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
Leonard continues to work new variations on his own formula in Killshot, this time by focusing on a typical working-class married couple, Wayne and Carmen Colson, rather than on his more typical characters who live near the fringes of law enforcement and crime. The book begins with chapters from the points of view of Armand Degas, a professional killer, and then Richie Nix, an armed robber and ex-convict. The reader is thus able to learn about these characters from the inside as they meet and develop a plan to extort money from the Detroit real-estate agency where Carmen works. Wayne drives the men away by force, temporarily disrupting their plan but also turning himself and his wife into eyewitnesses and, therefore, targets to be eliminated by the two criminals.
The genesis of the book, which Leonard had originally planned to revolve around Wayne, exemplifies the way in which his books are driven by the development of his characters rather than by any preconceived ideas about plot or structure. He begins not with a plot but with a set of characters. He decides first on the right names for characters, then works out the details of their background and, especially, the way they talk. Once he has created a set of interesting characters, he improvises a situation that puts them into conflict and lets them dictate the action to him as it goes along, seldom knowing himself what will happen more than a scene or two ahead or how the book will end. This improvisational approach also accounts for the fact that so many of his best characters are minor ones who develop unexpectedly as he writes. As Leonard explained in an interview about Killshot, “I started with a husband and wife who get involved in the Federal Witness Protection program. He’s an ironworker, and he was going to be the main character—he’s a very macho kind of guy. . . . She takes over; she becomes the main character and I was very glad to see it happen.”
The Colsons are eventually put in a witness protection program and relocated to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a location carefully researched and depicted in Leonard’s usual manner. Carmen finds herself in nearly as much danger there from Ferris Britton, the deputy marshal in charge of their case, as she had been from Degas and Nix. The couple eventually discover, as do most of Leonard’s characters, that the legal system is an inadequate defense against the evil that surrounds them, and they are forced to take matters into their own hands. The book ends in typical fashion with a dramatic armed confrontation among Carmen, Degas, and Nix back in Detroit.