Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Does Technology Make Mysteries Harder to Write?
I recently did a story for an upcoming Speed City Sisters in Crime Anthology (Decades of Dirt: Murder Mystery and Mayhem from the Crossroads of Crime). Set in the 1830s, my piece entailed a fair bit of research about life in Indiana at that time.
My frame of reference was ancestors who operated a grain mill in Indiana, but they could only serve as a starting point for a mystery. When I delved more, I found that the kind of mill they operated would have been very different from those even thirty years later—a period I was more familiar with. Thus, if I wanted to sabotage the family mill, I had to put the right kind of cog in the wheel, so to speak.
When I shared the story with my critique group, someone asked if I was sure frying pans existed in the 1830s. My assumption was correct, but it reinforced the need to be thorough.
While murder weapons or getaway vehicles were very different in the 1830s, the advanced technologies of the twenty-first century create their own problems in crafting mysteries. Thanks to smart phones and security cameras, it's hard for a perpetrator to vanish. On the other hand, there are more ways to kill people, too. I love poisons that are hard to isolate in the blood.
So, what's an author to do to thwart technology? I've had protagonists realize that the purse with a cell phone was in the next room when the villain attacks. No way to call for help. Then there's the isolated beach with no signal. Even that's getting hard, since so many phones now rely on satellite technology. Those suckers never sleep.
I write cozy mysteries, so the sleuth doesn't have to know a lot about law enforcement techniques or equipment. She or he does have to be smart enough to solve a murder, but not so smart that she does it quickly. However, something has to give the sleuth an advantage.
I like visual examples, so think about the movie The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. There's a long scene in which Ford's character (Richard Kimble) eludes the marshals in and around a Chicago detention center. Kimble eventually vanishes in a St. Patrick's Day parade. The U.S. Marshals used radios to stay in constant touch—some on the roof, some in a stairwell, and many other places. It sounds simple, but those radios were an important factor in staying even with the desperate Dr. Kindle.
The movie came out in 1993. Twenty-two years later, those radios sound almost quaint. In all the NCIS shows, the teams constantly get photos from security and traffic cameras, sometimes in real time. (It's fiction, remember?) Snap a photo of a murder victim, send it to the office computer geeks and, voila, there's an ID. Another device lets investigators put a fingerprint on a gadget about the size of a smart phone. In almost no time, the print identifies a culprit. My low-tech sleuths use the computer to check old newspaper articles, and occasionally get access to security tapes. Still, those tools are relatively recent.
M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth is in remote Scotland. He still does most of his sleuthing through tried and true personal contact. Sue Grafton keeps the Kinsey Milhone series in the 1980s. I understand she chose to do this so Kinsey didn't have to age beyond her mid-thirties. It also limits Kinsey's technology tools. Her smarts are what count.
It's difficult (for most of us) to predict how technological advantages will make it harder for the bad guys to thwart investigators twenty years from now. In a few years, we'll think immediate access to fingerprint data is old-fashioned. I'm waiting for something like the Star Trek Hollow Deck so we can reenact a crime at the drop of a hat. However, that could put a lot of sleuths—amateur or professional—out of business.