It’s one of my favorite pieces of writerly advice: Raymond Chandler’s observation that when things slow down, bring in a man with a gun. It served me so well during the writing of The Dangerous Edge of Things, my debut mystery novel, that the “man with a gun” I brought into the story went on to become one of its protagonists. It seems my narrator Tai Randolph, a woman with a gun shop, found him just as fascinating as I did.

Which is not surprising. It’s an iconic image, a man with a weapon, layered with all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle signals. It represents competence and authority, danger and masculine control. You see it featured in movie posters and on book covers, just one piece of a symbolic code. Man plus gun equals power.

It’s a unique feature of the human animal, this language we speak of symbol and image. As a writer, I work with such images to create character and setting, tone and mood. As a tarot reader, I work with images too. The difference is that when I read tarot, the story I’m creating isn’t fictional — it’s the truth, as real as the person I‘m reading for. And sometimes the images in the cards can be as startling as the proverbial man with a gun.

RWS tower card Take The Tower for instance. In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck,  this unsettling card depicts a lightning-struck stone tower stark against the night sky. Fire erupts from the windows as the top of the tower crashes to the ground, the inhabitants of the tower — two human figures — tumbling along with it. It is a card of obvious and sudden catastrophe, and represents those times in one’s life when something huge is crumbling, when the very foundation is breaking apart beneath your feet. There’s no denying this energy — something is going down, and going down hard.

Imagine seeing THAT card in front of you. You ask an innocent question about your promotion and suddenly — bam! There it is, the proverbial disaster waiting to happen.

There are other visually disturbing cards in the deck as well. The Devil, with his goaty haunches and captive souls. The Ten of Swords, featuring a figure lying facedown beside a still body of water, ten sabers plunged into his back. And perhaps most distressing of all — Death, depicted in the Rider-Waite-Smith as a skeletal rider upon a white horse, his banner held aloft, and all the things of this world crumbling underneath the horse’s hooves.

“No, thank you,” some people tell me when I offer to read for them. They don’t want to risk turning over a card and seeing one of those ghastly omens. No way, no how, no ma’am!

Tina Whittle I don’t blame people for worrying. These images trouble the water. They force us to confront our darkest fears, our deepest nightmares, our most terrifying shadows. But — and this is a vital point — the tarot is not a doomsday device. It does not predict some unchangeable future. The strength of the tarot is that it shows exactly what is. It is information, but like all information, you have the ultimate choice about what to do with it. You have free will, and that trumps fate every time.

I emphasize this point with my clients. There are no “bad” cards, I tell them. Some cards are harder than others, true enough. Some cards ask you to make tough decisions or confront difficult truths. But always — always —  the power rests in your hands. Sometimes the universe throws a spanner in the works, this is true. Sometimes huge challenges crash on us like breaking waves. But every consequence has a precipitating action. Every end result starts with a beginning intention, thought, word or deed. Change the ingredients, you change the dish. If you don’t like what you see before you, look for the places where you can exert your free will. Look for the cracks you can wedge your lever in.

RWS death card I tell them this before Death shows up. Most people have a hard time listening afterward. But Death is nothing to be afraid of. It’s just the cycle of release, the return to source. Some part of us is always dying. The trick is to be aware of that, and to honor the empty place left behind. Because an empty place always invites filling, like a hole in the earth invites the seed.

Before I read tarot professionally, I read for myself and my friends. I quickly discovered that my literary acquaintances were the most open to the messages in the cards. I think the same impulse that led me to the mystery genre, both as a reader and a writer, led me also to tarot. I don’t mind exploring the dark side of things — after all, a shadow is just substance plus light.

Mysteries take us to the heart of the shadow. They wade into chaos and return with order. The villain is revealed, and justice is served. But the mysteries that really catch my interest, the ones that hit me deep, are the ones that leave some questions on the table. The mysteries that make you ponder the human condition, the human heart, and the human soul.

Dangerous Edge of Things by Tina WhittleThe man with a gun is back for Book Two in my series. Something about him begs to be revealed. And so even though he is true to his image — masculine, direct, powerful — I tucked a tarot deck into his desk, just to remind him that sometimes we have to look below the obvious to see the truth.

Tina Whittle is a mystery writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. The Dangerous Edge of Things, her first novel, debuts February 2011 from Poisoned Pen Press. Set in contemporary Atlanta, The Dangerous Edge of Things is the first book in a series featuring gun-shop owner Tai Randolph and corporate security agent Trey Seaver. When not writing or reading, Tina enjoys golf, sushi, and spending time with her family (one husband, one daughter, one neurotic Maltese and three chickens). You can find her at www.tinawhittle.com.