Sunday, July 19, 2009

Unreal!

A few months ago, one Pat Miller alerted me to a passage from Michael Connelly's novel The Overlook:
"[Harry] Bosch was not adept in a digital world and readily acknowledged this. He had mastered his own cell phone but it was a basic model that made and received calls, stored numbers in a directory, and did nothing else — as far as he knew."
Elsewhere, Bosch is bemused by a BlackBerry.

Donald Westlake was also puzzled by a phenomenon of modern life: reality TV. His latest and, sadly, last Dortmunder novel, Get Real, involves Dortmunder and his gang with a producer who wants to make a show about the gang planning and executing a burglary. Westlake being Westlake, he mixes fun with the puzzlement:
"`Where do you want to do this, your office?'

"`No. We've got a rehearsal space downtown, we— '

"`Wait a minute,' Stan said. `You got a rehearsal space for reality shows?'"
I like Connelly's attitude, and I like Westlake's. Each is a happy medium between uncritical surrender and curmudgeonly rejection. A more bitterly funny Westlake comes through as well, the Westlake who wrote The Ax and who, despite being beloved of some conservative pundits, was given to profound sympathy with American workers. Here's the reality show's producer explaining to his assistant why she (the assistant) is not a writer even though she scripts "suggestions" for the reality show's stars:
"Because The Stand is a reality show, and reality shows do not have actors and writers because they do not need actors and writers. We are a very low-budget show because we do not need actors and writers. If you were a writer, Marcy, you would have to be in the union, and you would cost us a whole lot more because of health insurance and a pension plan, which would make you too expensive for our budget, and we would very reluctantly have to let you go and replace you with another twenty-two-year-old fresh out of college. You're young and healthy. You don't want all those encumbrances, health insurance and pension plans."
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BlackBerries, cell phones and reality TV. What other aspects of pop culture do your favorite crime writers make fun of or scratch their heads over?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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35 Comments:

Blogger R. T. said...

Since most of my favorite crime writers are either dead or completed most of their writing well before the advent of 21st century technology, the issue never becomes an issue. And that is fine with me--a person who does not own a cell phone and is more than a little impatient about their ubiquitous encroachment upon modern culture. I may be a dinosaur in that regard, but I remain non-extinct (and my favorite authors--reluctantly embracing automobiles and air travel--remain my kindred spirits).

More to the point, though, references to technology within novels add up to nearly instant anachronisms given the speed at which newer technologies replace new technologies. Authors who spend time brandishing their not-well-hidden technophobia (through their characters) do so at their own anachronistic peril.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Swedish Camilla Läckberg writes about reality TV in a crime novel which has not been translated into English yet. I think it is with her tongue in her cheek.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I suspect that I at least match you on the dinosaur front. Not only don't I have a cell phone or a BlackBerry, I also don't drive and don't own a working television.

Still, I must disagree with the direction of your comment. BlackBerries (or automobiles) may be ephermera, but fear of the technological parade's passing one by or wonder at the progress of that parade, or amusement at the fuss that others make over the parade are not. The objects themselves may add up to nearly instant anachronisms, but references to them by a skilled author do not. I haven't read The Overlook, but the passage about the BlackBerry is almost wistful in its musing on the passage of time. These are not the sort of cheap topical references on finds in comic strips or sitcoms, in other words.I take the Connelly and Westlake references in the same spirit as I take that memorable line from The Magnificent Ambersons: "Get a horse!"

As to most of your favorite writers' having comepleted their work before the advent of 21st-century technology, what about 20th- and 19th-century technology? James Thurber, to name one, had much fun with an aunt or grandmother who was suspicious of electricity. P.G. Wodehouse is full of references to fast trains and slow trains.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, Westlake has his tongue pretty firmly in cheek, too, but he can appreciate that kernel of attraction -- however tiny it may be in the case of reality TV -- at the heart of his chosen target. And that's a good thing. It takes no imagination to make fun of reality of reality television. It may take a bit more imagination to like it. But it takes some generosity of spirit to recognize all its absurdities, as Westlake does, and to acknowledge its attractions.

Westlake did something similar in his novel Baby, Would I Lie? He set that book not just in thw world of country music, but in the weirdly artificial version of that world that has been recreated in Branson, Missouri.

It would be fascinating compare Camilla Läckberg's approach to Westlake's.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Ben Elton wrote a great reality TV satire/crime story titled Dead Famous. And I think he did a more current one (that I haven't read yet) about the American Idol/X Factor type show title Chart Throb.

And I don't think it's in any of his books, but John Connolly HATES the whole Twitter thing. He even threatened to kill Stuart Neville if he wrote a Twitter-length short story. And I think he was dead serious.

Cheers

gb

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerard, I'd be wary of Ben Elton's story for the reason R.T. suggests, but I'd be open to trying it for the reasons I suggest. Thanks for the heads-up.

And I have a title for Stuart Neville's Twitter-length tale: "A Story With 140 Characters."

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

"A Story With 140 Characters."

Heh! Nice one.

gb

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe I'll write it. Connolly doesn't know me well enough to kill me.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Peter, I acknowledge and agree with your points about technology as fodder for commentary. My initial comments were hastily written and based on incomplete thought--such is the nature of technologically enhanced conversation.

I recall vaguely that Holmes and Watson were particularly impressed by or flabbergasted by technology in various stories. Now, were I being diligent, I would return to Doyle's stories to find evidence in support of your assertions and my vague recollections.

"A Story with 140 Characters"? Didn't Tolstoy pull that offer rather literally in his novels? (Yes, I know you are referring to Twitter, but--of course--as I suggested earlier, I have little idea at all about Twitter or similar abridgments of communications engaged in during the "good old days.")

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I understand your wariness. Easy references to consumer technology are like easy references to movie stars or brand names: cheap, fleeting and unsatisfying. And I don't think technology has ever been quite the consumer item that is is today.

Twitter's selling point is that it lets one tell the world what one is up to. Its slogan is "What are you doing?" (which some sleazy SOB has probably tried to copyright), and it lets one do so in bulletins limited to 140 characters. That conception is akin to reality TV.

I use Twitter in the service of the ancient technology of, er, blogging. The opening words of every post I make here plus a link to the complete post are automatically posted on Twitter. That lets me spread the word about Detectives Beyond Borders.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

Hmm, I read in the Times this morning that Tweet is now a registered trademark.

John Sanford's Lucas Davenport refused to answer his work cell phone several books ago. They were still fairly new there. Far as I know (I'm not up on the series) he still resists flying in airplanes, but that's because flying terrifies him. Driving at excessive speed on Interstates does not.

Travis McGee held out for a long time against credit cards, until he couldn't rent a car without one. I don't recall which color it was in, but in one of the books his economist sidekick told him he didn't have to worry about privacy; if he took out enough accounts, his personal history would get so complicated nobody would be able to untangle it. Sadly, not a very accurate prediction ... though a lot of the environmental warnings John D. MacDonald frequently included in his books were pretty accurate.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Despite trademark lawyers' misguided belief that they control language, and slavish journalists who, in their misunderstanding of what a trademark is, follow trademark lawyers when deciding which words must be capitalized, Tweet as a trademark makes some sense. In the sense of brief, broadcast computer message, it has no synonyms, and the trademark move is not an obvious effort to appropriate a term already in common use.

Appehension about some feature of modern life can be a quirk of the character, as much a part of him or her as Nero Wolfe's love of fine food or refusal to leave his house. It can both flesh out the character and, when challenge, serve as a plot point, as when Nero Wolfe must leave his house.

Sometime the apprehension or skepticism is the author's or the narrator's. In that case, more power to the author or narrator, if the skepticism is expressed well and is more than a cheap joke.

July 19, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Well, I'm very curious about the limits of that trademark on Tweet, as it is a word used to describe bird sound and has been for a long time. Put another way, who are they going to sue for wrongful use, exactly.

I'm open-minded about a lot of the new technology, as long as it doesn't become de rigueur for me to have it.

I can't think of any examples of crime novel characters with an aversion to new technology, although it's interesting to read older--and not even that much older--crime fiction and think what handicaps the characters suffer from, being unequipped with computers, cell phones--sometimes not even regular telephones if you go back far enough. For an example of a, well, not quite crime novel, but let's say a paranoid thriller that goes in the other direction and exploits all current and even near future technologies as real parts of the plot, try Cory Doctorow's excellent Little Brother.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, if you have access to a database that contains the Economist, look for a 1997 article that explains why journalists are wrong to capitalize trademarked words that have become part of common speech. One reason is that a reporter who uses tarmac or windbreaker, for example, as generic synonyms for runway or jacket is not engaging in trade -- in infringing on trademark rights, in other words.

The example that drives me nuts at work is Dumpster, which the people who make these decisions refuse to recognize has become a generic term and should this be lowercase. That's fine, and reasonable people can disagree about whether a given term has become current in common speech. But what really sends me over the edge is what too many editors at my newspaper do when they encounter dumpster as a generic synonym for large trash bin. They capitalize it, which they obviously should not do unless they know that the bin in question was of the Dumpster brand. It's not a big problem, perhaps, but it is the stupidest act that copy editors at my newspaper commit regularly.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"I'm open-minded about a lot of the new technology, as long as it doesn't become de rigueur for me to have it."

That's what bothers me -- the pressure to acquire technology, and the messianic air that surrounds it.

The inventor of the Walkman, who was widely hailed as a kind of gently naive genius a few years ago when he won lots of money from a lawsuit against Sony over his invention, is, in light of the daily realities of personal stereos, nothing but a naive idiot.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Somewhat on topic: While I truly like most things from Westlake, I couldn't get into The Ax. I didn't think he managed to justify Devore's killings with his theme, although he tried mightily. There's no accounting for taste, huh?

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

Here is a quote from the interview with Craig McDonald that I just did for Spinetingler.

CM: "We were talking about mulling contemporary settings, and we simultaneously began ruing the cell phone…ruing the connectivity we all have with one another now and the fact that so much contemporary suspense writing — be it in books or on film — all spins on the gadgets. You’d have to rewrite both of the most recent Bond films if you took away the cell phones as plot elements."

It was actually a topic that, in hindsight, we should have explored more. There seems to be this fear that some writers have of technology and the effects that it can have on a story. I think that the fear idea needs some pushback.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Thanks for the explanation on 'trademark', Peter. I actually came across the whole Dumpster problem when I was including one in a story once for some reason. Microsoft Word's spellcheck corrected it to the capital letters, and I left it in, but it really sort of bugged me.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Here's the problem with technology and fiction right now--people are moving through the always changing forms of the latest gear so fast that even if you are really in the know on tech stuff, it's quite possible that by the time your story appears, it will already feel slightly dated.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, I've never been able to bring myself to read "The Ax"; I've been surrounded by quite enough layoffs in my own professional life. But I think that book is just a distillation of attitudes and sympathies Westlake occasionally expressed elsewhere, in some of the later Parker novels or in the wonderful Dortmunder novella "Walking Around Money."

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, fear of technology can quickly become overplayed as a motif, just as overreliance on it can. I suspect that authors will eventually get used to cell phones and connectivity and stop emphasizing them so much.

As it happens, I have just received one of Craig McDonald's books of interviews in the mail today.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I wouldn't dignify my selective summary with the name of "explanation," but you're welcome.

I don't mind a spellchecker's capitalizing Dumpster; writers should be aware that the word is a trademark. But they should also be aware that as long as they are not engaging in trade (that is, not manufacturing their own trash bins and calling them dumpsters), they are under no obligation to capitalize the word.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Here's the problem with technology and fiction right now--people are moving through the always changing forms of the latest gear so fast that even if you are really in the know on tech stuff, it's quite possible that by the time your story appears, it will already feel slightly dated."

Which is one good reason to be wary of over-reliance on teachnology in fiction. It's too much like over-reliance on brand names or telling the reader that this or that character looks like this or that movie star.

July 20, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Most of the crime fiction writers I read are dead, too, (where would the detective of yesteryear be without a drugstore to run into in order to make a phone call?) but I enjoy a few contemporary authors. One way Italian writer Andrea Camilleri ribs modern technology in his Inspector Montalbano series is by having the otherwise incompetent Catarella, the police station's phone operator who can't come through a door without stumbling over his own feet, excel at computer technology applications. And we all know information techies who confuse their skills at handling content with the *creation* of that content. Overuse of popular culture references immediately date any novel and the contemporary reader can be jerked out of the narrative by a jarring reference to some old TV show or TV commercial, etc. I haven't read the book, so I don't know if the then cutting-edge, desk-sized, reel-to-reel tape recorder answering machine on the wall in Mike Hammer's apartment in the 1955 film "Kiss Me Deadly" is in it but its appearance on screen always elicits loud guffaws from today's audiences.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But I bet those guffaws are not as loud as the out-and-out horselaughs that greet the movie's ludicrous ending.

Catarella is such an enjoyable character that I had not considered until your comment that he's something of a spin on that old standby of the scientific genius who can't tie his own shoelaces. It had not occurred to me that Catarella might be Camilleri's jab at technology.

I have just started another book that lays the jabs at technology on a bit thick. It makes too much of the protagonist's incompetence with his own cell phone.

July 20, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Donna Leon, whose novels I otherwise enjoy, has increasingly started to irritate me with her tendency to have all crimes *solved* (as far as possible in her version of Italy) by the wonders of Signora Ellettra and her computer.

I really dislike the magic "computer-solves-all" motif that's appearing today, particularly when you're dealing with very average characters. At least in Stieg Larsson's version, the character's a hacker!

(Was pleased to read a Danish novel recently where they had access to the deceased's computer and couldn't find anything useful.)

Re: mobile phones, I think Helene Tursten uses them rather well in her novels - characters (usually Irene) get tripped up by the obvious things rather than by secret codes and silent novels.

July 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean Chercover makes judicious use of computers in his novel Big City, Bad Blood. The database that his protagonist uses is powerful, but it's just one more tool in the investigator's arsenal.

I've read two of Helene Tursten's novels, but not in the past year or so. I don't remember how Irene Huss relates to her phone. Perhaps it's time to read her again, paying special attention to the characters' relationships with consumer technology.

July 22, 2009  
Anonymous Craig McDonald said...

Following up on Brian’s comments springing from the interview he conducted with me, it’s not so much fear as irritation with technology that digs at me. As I wrote in a column on this topic for Crimespree several weeks before Brian interviewed me:

“Between cell phones and all these other handheld devices we all tote around there’s simply too much connectivity and the fact is suspense and mystery thrive on isolation.

“Putting aside the fact that CSI, et al now requires any contemporary crime novelist to be steeped in cutting-edge forensics, now you can’t have a simple kidnapping performed without having your perpetrator know to turn off the victim’s cell phone so it doesn’t ping some cell towers and give a location fix to the cops or FBI. Hell, GPS and remote engine cut-offs have “ruined” the simple carjacking for crime novelists. Writing about crime in our time, you end up being less a crime or mystery writer than a de facto techno-thriller writer.”

And echoing a comment above, I added:

“Because the technology moves with such relentless force, those writers who embrace the ‘now’ and seed their stories with cutting-edge techno-babble and heady hardware are going to be left with an oeuvre that dates furiously.” To that point, my wife was reading a novel the other day — one that’s a few years old and makes early use of cell phones. As the characters were on the run and in hiding, she wondered why they didn’t have the sense to turn off the phone to avoid “pinging” cell towers and therefore revealing their location. Of course in the early days of cell phone usage, cell towers didn’t proliferate, and “pinging” was an unknown term to the average mystery fan.

July 26, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

Craig -- hope you didn't think I was calling you out.

I shared the quote because the post reminded me of it and then I was lamenting the fact that I left an unexplored area in the interview.

July 26, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Craig, thanks for that thought-provoking comment. As it happens, I read your interview with Dan Brown last night. Now, there's someone who does not lament our ever-increasing connectivity.

To the extent that crime writers take this connectivity into account, consciously or otherwise, I suspect that it creates room for alienation and escape from the connectivity as motifs in crime stories.

July 26, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, you may not have been calling Craig out, but I'm glad that you goaded him into posting the comments he did. His thoughts certainly go beyond the obvious. I liked what he had to say, so thanks for inspiring him to post, even if he now wants to tear your head off.

July 26, 2009  
Anonymous Craig McDonald said...

Brian, no sweat and quite the contrary: you gave me a reason to clarify and elaborate. I guess the summation of this is, because readers are so clued in to all this tech stuff, and the ways in which it typically is played in crime and thriller fiction, a writer working in the "now" has to essentially write to his readers' hipness to the ins and outs of the technology... That's one unhappy place to be for a writer trying to tell a good story.

July 26, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or else that writer has to relegate that technology to a subordinate position, as, happily, plenty of writers do.

July 26, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

SORRY...
DO YOU KNOW IF THERE IS A FILM BASED ON "HELP I AM BEING PRISONER" (D.Westlake - 1974)?
THANKS A LOT!!!!
CAROLA
carola.jalife@patagonik.com.ar

July 29, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not heard of a movie's being made from Help, I'm Being Held Prisoner, and Westlake's entry on IMDb shows no listing, so I'm going to guess none has been. But I shall post a correction here if I find out otherwise.

July 29, 2009  

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