Friday, July 16, 2010

How do crime writers keep pace with technology?

(Photo by Aaron Logan)

I've read the occasional wistful lament that the advent of cell phones deprived suspense writers of that old stand-by: the hero's desperate search for a telephone so he can make the call that will save the world, the day, or his own life.

I never worried too much, though, because I had faith that crime writers would put the replacement technologies to good literary use, and so they have. One newish suspense-builder takes advantage of the anonymity of text messages: Is that message really from the person it purports to be from?

I've seen that one in a couple of novels recently, and it could be on its way to cliché status as we speak.

The phone booth is out, the text message is in. What other formerly popular suspense-building devices have been rendered technologically obsolete? What newer ones have replaced them — or are good candidates to do so?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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31 Comments:

Blogger Vanda Symon said...

The immediacy of cell phones can be a pain - I got around it in my first novel by it being out country and out of signal range, so she had to run, but the network coverage is now so good I can't do that any more. But you know, batteries do go flat... you run out of money on your pre-pay card at the most inopportune of moments - well I certainly have in real life.

New technology is fun to play with. The whole video in phones, the things people will record and upload to youtube or other social networking sites, which provide ripe fodder of their own. The possibilities are limitless.

July 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, now, that's the sort of technology-fueled optimism that I welcome.

At least one crime novel I've read had a character surreptitiously swap SIM cards on a mobile phone to evade detection. (Doing so could put the innocent victim in danger, not a possibility this book chose to explore but certainly one that others might take up.)

July 16, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

In The Girl Who Played with Fire Lizbeth communicates solely by text/email with her allies. She has virtually no verbal dialog with anybody, as I recall.

My Motorola Tracfone doesn't include a camera. Do phone cameras have flashes? I can see lots of potential for surreptitious use of those rather than the shirt-pocket Minoxes I used to find in spy novels.

July 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lisbeth communicates solely by text message and e-mail? That must be a commentary on something or other. Maybe she's an electronic Batman, moving obscurely in a world no one can see, striking only occasionally.

I don't think phone cameras have flahes. At least I've never seen a phone flashing. I also have not seen a cellular-phone camera figure in any crime novel. Maybe that's because they are so widespread that they lack sufficient interest to serve as a major plot point.

July 17, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

It's more that she doesn't trust a single damned soul except her crew of hackers, all of whom are accessible online.

Lockpicking! There's an app for that!

July 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As nearly as I can tell, Lisbeth Salander has more in common with comic-book super heroes than anything else. That is no insult, of course, just an observation.

I wonder how much mainstream discussion of the books has made similar observations.

July 17, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

By the time book 3 rolls around she's back to talking to people again.

I keep hoping the Swedish versions of the films will play here. I'll even put up with subtitles rather than watch what Hollywood almost inevitably will do to the books.

July 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Swedish version of the first movie played here to generally good reviews, I think.

July 17, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Back to the subject at hand, I remember a book in which the good guy grumbles bitterly about the switch from phone booths to the clamshell thing that was clearly designed to protect the instrument from the elements, not the user. I think he also objected to the lack of privacy that entailed.

July 17, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies made some hay of this, I think. Some clips tacked onto the beginning of the third movie, I think it was, showed clips from previous movies. In one of them, Clark Kent walks urgently up to one of the plastic wraparound booths, stops, looks at it, and walks on.

July 17, 2010  
Anonymous Adrian McKinty said...

I thought the film of Dragon Tattoo was pretty good. Nice pacey little thriller with some interesting landscapes.

Hated the book.

The reason Lisbeth doesnt speak to anyone is because she's a kind of magic elf in the book.

A magic elf with breast implants in book 2.

July 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I hear the fourth book is to be called "Lisbeth and the Magic Elf."

July 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or else "The Girl Who Kicked the Elf's ***."

July 18, 2010  
Anonymous Mike Dennis said...

Of course, traditional film cameras have been wiped out by the digital camera, so our hero won't have to rush and get the film developed in time to save the world.

Also, the Kindle's ability to download newspapers means that our hero won't have to find a newsstand to see if a key story has appeared.

And speaking of newspapers, classified ads are on their way out, having been obliterated by Craigslist. No longer will we see the provocative "personal ad" in the paper, containing a coded message.

July 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mike, those are all good. I also foresee a chase scene in which the quarry ducks into a doorway and breathlessly fires up his e-reader, only to find that it has been superseded by a more advances model or the information he needs has been made unavailable because of a pricing dispute.

July 18, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Hear the Swedish film of TGWTDT is very good. Dread to think what Hollywood will do, won't see it.

I would say that Lizbeth Salander was quiet and withdrawn, a loner and introvert due to the terrible, long-time physical, psychological and emotional abuse to which she was subjected. (Book II tells quite a bit more about this. Many people wouldn't survive what she went through at all; they'd be totally destroyed.)

That she's tough and fights back is a good thing as opposed to vegetating and giving up.

On old, outdated technology, I somehow thought of the old "party" line phones of my early childhood. Someone could have heard murder and mayhem being plotted over a "party" line.

Nowadays I can't even believe someone could plot anything over a cell phone, given that so many people say everything at a decibel level that everyone within 50 feet can hear.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, a fellow customer has just come into the Pen & Pencil Club after having seen the movie of The Girl Who Played With Fire. He has not read the books, but he spoke highly of both movies, including mentioning that the characters were likable. That's not a word I've heard often in discussions of the Stieg Larsson phenomenon.

Has any fictional character ever heard a crime being committed over a party line?

And yes to cell phones. Anyone polite enough to speak at a volume that would not be audible to neighbors would be regarded with suspicion.

July 19, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, heard the first movie is good. Haven't heard yet about the second.

Interesting that someone thought the characters likable.

No, haven't heard of someone in fiction hearing a crime being plotted on a "party" line but it's plausible.

As a child, I would pick up the phone and hear a few words on the "party" line before realizing it was in use and hang up. But the possibilities were there for use in fiction.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If not on party lines, surely some fictional switchboard operator must have heard a dangerous discussion she should not have, in movies or on television, if not in a crime novel.

July 19, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes, I'm sure I saw a movie with a fictional switchboard operator overhearing something ominous.

As an early job, I ran one of those old-fashioned switchboards. One learns a lot doing that.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, that's such an obvious set-up: an operator grinning as she overhears gossip, then gasping as she realizes she is hearing something more. Mix-ups with oeprators were the stuff of many humorous scenes; why not dramatic or suspenseful ones as well?

In re your early job, I can well imagine the temptattion to listen when ought not to have been doing so.

July 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Sorry, Wrong Number.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cripes, some places charge for calls to directory information these days. No change or no time to reach for your credit card because a nasty character is chasing you down? That's ap lot device right there.

July 19, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Sorry, Wrong Number the, eh, non-cryptic version. I liked this unofficial trailer better than I liked the movie. I think it's the music.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, no way the movie could be as good as the music.

July 19, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Well, although I wasn't in this position, at another job, those who operated the switchboard always knew who in the office staff was receiving calls that had to be very discreetly handled. Not because they listened, but because they knew who was calling whom and could put two and two together.

So, an author could have fun with a character having that job, as he/she hears and knows all.

July 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A current author could have good, nostalgic fun, create suspense, and educate younger generations at the same time.

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

When I was working on Kwajalein I used to run the old plug switchboard on holidays (Thanksgiving & Christmas) so the three married ladies who ordinarily did that job could be with their families (read: cook like crazy all day). Double-time-and-a-half wages!

Even back then (1975-1978) I realized I was working with an anachronistic device, but it was amusing for just that reason.

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Switchboards are a nightmare.

I used run one in a post office when I was a child.

One day several callers got plugged in together by mistake.

Murder seemed a possibility...

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I've never been on a party line, but I had glancing contact with them a time or two, maybe at some chalet or at a friend's house in the countryside. I knew enough to recognize the device as weirdly exotic.

July 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P à D:

Oh, the gossip you must have picked up.

Have murder and possibility ever appeared together in a title, perhaps of a village mystery with a bit of a hard, existential edge?

July 20, 2010  

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