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?