Monday, November 30, 2009

Murder.com

There have been many fundamental social changes in the last decades; I’m sure you could think of three or four without even having to pause. One of the more important changes has been the revolution in technology in nearly every field. Today, most of us are dependent on technology and probably couldn’t imagine ourselves without it. Case in point: if you’re reading this blog post, you’re using technology that wasn’t possible just twenty-five years ago. Because technology is integrated so thoroughly into our lives, it’s natural that it also plays an important role in crime fiction.

One important role that technology plays in modern murder mysteries is, of course, in the identification of the criminal. In early crime fiction, that wasn’t the case. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s day, for instance, there wasn’t a great deal of technology available to identify a killer. The use of fingerprints to identify killers wasn’t common until after the turn of the 20th Century, and other forensic evidence wasn’t available until much later. Sherlock Holmes did have access to the microscope and some other laboratory equipment, and used them in more than one mystery. For example, at the beginning of The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, Watson comes upon Holmes as he’s using a microscope to examine some evidence in another case he’s investigating. Holmes mentions that since he’s used the microscope to find key evidence in some cases, “they have begun to realize the importance of the microscope.”

By the time Agatha Christie was writing, there’d been major improvements in the technology that was available for crime detection. Not only were fingerprints commonly used (Christie mentions this in several of her novels), but other technology was available, too. For instance, in novels such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Sad Cypress and Sparkling Cyanide, medical examiners are able to detect poison, even in victims who’ve already been buried. Forensic evidence is mentioned, too. For instance, in Murder in Mesopotamia, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a noted archeologist’s wife, the local doctor who examines the body uses a reagent on a small stain to test for blood. Dental records become critical in One,Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders) and Christie’s novels show other developments in technology as well, that allow sleuths to catch criminals much more easily than before. Communication took a quantum leap forward with the invention of the telephone and later, long-distance and international calling. We see this in several of Christie’s novels, including Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) in which Poirot investigates the murder of a French moneylender while en route between Paris and London. Poirot makes several long-distance and international telephone calls as he traces the killer’s identity.

Today’s crime novels now feature very sophisticated technology that’s used for solving murders. There are too many fine examples for me to list them here, so I’ll just mention two. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance “Bones” Brennan series and Patricia Cornwell’s early Kay Scarpetta novels both make use of cutting-edge forensic technology to solve murders. Many police procedurals use evidence such as cell phone records, banking and other financial information and audio and video technology to track criminals. That’s how my own Joel Williams and the members of the Tilton, Pennsylvania police force get much of the evidence they use. In fact, there’s an argument that today’s fictional sleuths depends crucially on this technology, and a modern crime novel probably wouldn’t have a real ring of authenticity if it didn’t include this kind of evidence.

Perhaps the most important technological advance of the last thirty years has been the computer. At first only used by large businesses and government agencies, the computer has become indispensable to most of us. It’s also become a fixture in crime detection. In the early and mid-1980’s, when computers were just beginning to be commercially available, most of them were still used by companies and agencies. Still, crime fiction of the time integrates them. For example, in Robin Cook’s Outbreak, Marissa Blumenthal, a doctor with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, tries to find out who’s behind a series of mysterious deaths from an outbreak of a very contagious, untreatable virus. Her sleuthing leads her to a laboratory that’s owned by a corporation, and use of the State of Georgia’s computing system helps her track down the owners and the conspiracy behind the outbreak.

Today’s crime fiction, of course, has thoroughly integrated the computer and the Internet. For example, Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy features Lisbeth Salander, a computer genius and expert hacker, as one of his sleuths. It’s partly through her computer skills that Salander is able to help Mikael Blomkvist, Larsson’s other sleuth, uncover some long-buried secrets and high-level conspiracies. In fact, Salander uses her computer hacking skills to keep in contact with Blomkvist in The Girl Who Played With Fire. We see the same kind of use of the computer in Siobhan Clarke, who partners with John Rebus in Ian Rankin’s Rebus series. Clarke is a computer expert who’s much more comfortable online than Rebus is. In The Falls, for instance, she enters the world of Internet gaming to help Rebus track down the murderer of Philippa Balfour, a university student who disappears and is later found dead. Before her disappearance, Balfour was involved in an internet game with a mysterious stranger, and Clarke takes the lead on this part of the investigation.

Of course, it’s not just sleuths who use computers. Crime fiction has also included plenty of criminals who use computers. Even as long ago as 1977, John McNeil’s The Consultant had that theme as a central part of the plot. In that novel, Christopher Webb is a London-based computer consultant who’s hired by a major bank to find and “plug up” security leaks in the bank system. The idea is to prevent theft and embezzlement. Webb starts working on the system and soon enough, he discovers the leak. Instead of simply patching the leak, however, Webb uses it to his own advantage. He finds out who the thief is and kills him, then takes his place. More recently, Margaret Murphy’s Now You See Me focuses on cybercrime. In that novel, Sara Geddes reports that her tenant, Megan Ward, is missing; she’s afraid that Megan’s become the victim of a stalker. When DCI Jeff Rickman investigates, he finds that there really is no Megan. There’s no identification, no family, no friends. The only sign of Megan is a set of corrupted computer files. Soon after, Geddes is killed. Then, mysteriously, Megan reappears and offers to help find the killer. In the meantime, Patrick Doran, who owns Safe Hands Security, has himself become the victim of a hacker named “Warlock,” and lost quite a lot of money. What Rickman and DC’s Foster and Hart find is that these crimes are all related, and that Megan Ward has her own agenda and is much more dangerous than anyone realized.

Even characters who are neither the sleuth nor the victim commonly use computers and the Internet, cell phones, texting, and other technology that wasn’t even on the horizon just forty years ago. But in the end, all of the sophisticated technology in the world can’t replace a strong plot, believable characters and an interesting mystery. What do you think? Do you enjoy mysteries that use “cutting edge” technology? Or do you find those stories too filled with jargon?

15 comments:

  1. Being a bit of a geek I do enjoy seeing technology used in my crime fiction - but I hate it when they get the jargon or usage wrong. I don't mind a flight of fancy or too (what would fiction be without imagination) but hate it when a piece of technology is depicted as being able to do something I know it can't do. Of course I can't think of a good example of that right now.

    Despite the fact that I do love gadgets and tech-y stuff they should never take over the plot - I still want a good story. I quite like the JD Robb books for their use of slightly futuristic technology - the gadgets and geekery are there but there are still good stories being told.

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  2. Bernadette - I know what you mean. I'm a linguist, so I'm really focused on the ways writers use language. And I agree with you about technology; if it's not used accurately, that can take away from the story. For instance, if a character can all of a sudden magically use a piece of technology that s/he's never learned how to use, or if, as you say, a piece of technology can magically give a clue or do something that it really can't do, that leaves me cold. I suppose it's because I like realism. I've read a few of the Eve Dallas books; you're right about the interesting technology and gadgets in them. But I think your other point is even more well-taken. The plot has to come first. Plot and characters are, to my way of thinking, the most important part of a good mystery. After that, the other stuff...

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  3. Cutting edge technology does help with some stories, but if the technology takes over the story then the writer hasn't done their job. There have been books that I've started to read, but because the writer goes into tiny details describing the technology I felt the plot was lost. There has to be a good balance.

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  4. Mason - You've got a good point. Sometimes the technology that's used is described in such minute details that it takes away from the story. I agree with you that there needs to be a balance between details (and great technology!) and the plot. When it's done well, though, cutting-edge technology can add to a story, especially if it's integral to the plot.

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  5. I enjoy books that have a Forensic Science slant. I enjoy watching the Forensic Files on TV. I use to buy Patricia Cornwell's books whenever they first came out. But after the married boyfriend was supposedly killed and PC started messing around with her character, presenting her in a "whimp" light, totally behaving, feeling and thinking out of character, going down the "dark" side, I haven't read one in a while. I know PC was dealing with negative public comments , and I wondered if it didn't flow over into her writing. I wonder if this tendency is one that befalls writers. Letting their public problems flow over into their characters.

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  6. "But in the end, all of the sophisticated technology in the world can’t replace a strong plot, believable characters and an interesting mystery."

    Well, you have said it yourself, haven´t you? If plot and characters are done well, a competent writer can be as ´modern´ as he likes; the story will be successful. If the plot sucks, no degree of technology can save it. I am probably neither for nor against. Plot, characters and setting mean much more to me.

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  7. Judy - You really raise an interesting question! Writers are no different from other folks; what happens to them in real life often affects their writing, and it would be very interesting to know whether Cornwell's depiction of Kay Scarpetta was affected by the kind of public commentary her work got. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some relationship.

    I agree with you, too, that books that take a forensic science approach can be fascinating when they're well-written, the characters are strong, etc.. I have to confess that I don't know a whole lot about forensic science myself - I'm no expert. So I enjoy learning from those books.

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  8. I know nothing about forensic science, so every book I read that uses it is an education! Learning new things is always fascinating but I don't want to read anything that the method of detection is more important than the plot. Give me people over computers any day.

    Elspeth

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  9. Great blog, Margot! Technology does pose a challenge for mystery writers. For me the big one in my novel was how to make believable the fact that my sleuth can't use her cell phone to call for help in the final life and death struggle with the villain. That took a lot of scheming on the part of both the writer and the villain. ;-)

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  10. Elspeth - Well-said! I agree completely. A strong plot and well-written characters are central to a good mystery novel. Without them, no technology is going to save the story, and that includes forensic technology. Like you, I enjoy learning new things when the "education" is woven through the plot and is a part of it. Otherwise, the book can fall flat.

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  11. Dorte - I think you put that quite well, yourself : ) "If the plot sucks, no degree of technology can save it." I agree with you that a good mystery doesn't need a lot of technology (how many classic crime novels can we think of that didn't use much of it. On the other hand, sometimes, especially for modern-day novels, some technology makes the novel more realistic. The key, for me anyway, is priorities; the plot and characters need to come first.



    Bobbi - Thanks for the kind words : ). You really raise an interesting point, too. Given the reality of today's technology, it's almost as important to show why it might *not* be used as it is to show why and how it *is* used. Thinking really realistically, I believe, can help. If the author plans the use of technology the way it actually would be used, s/he can also plan what might happen that would make it not used. It's not always easy to come up with a believable scenario, but that's the starting place, I think. By the way, now that I've read your post, I'm more intrigued than ever to read your whole novel!

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  12. Important post. Though you could get around technology by just setting your crime story back in time a bit. Still, modern crime needs modern technology, both for criminals and the crime solvers.
    Same as horror stories. It is getting harder and harder to isolate a group of people and the set up of the premise of horror stories now has a lot storms taking out powerlines and people leaving/breaking phones to ensure they can't get help.
    Thanks for sharing this.

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  13. Cassandra - You actually make a very interesting point. If one writes an historical murder mystery, such as Ellis Peters did and Deanna Raybourn does, there isn't any need for modern technology (although one has to be careful in those cases about other details). Modern-day novels, though, really do need to take into account that modern people have faxes, cell phones and other technology.

    I hadn't thought about it, but you're right that technology makes it more challenging to write a believable horror novel. Some authors solve the problem by making use of bad weather. Others write scenes where somehow, a cell phone is stolen, the reception is gone (as happens in a desert) or some other such strategy. Still, it is more challenging now than it was to write that kind of story and make it believable.

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  14. One of the drawbacks of featuring cutting edge technology too heavily in a novel is that, in a few years' time, it will almost inevitably seem rather dated.

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  15. Martin - That's a very well-taken point. In fact, that's one weakness that's been cited of the McNeil novel I mentioned in the post. The technology and the stratgies used are both quite dated. To me, that highlights yet again the crucial importance of a strong plot and solid characters; both stand the test of time.

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