by Jeanne Matthews
I’m a Luddite. I suppose that’s obvious from the fact that I can’t even post my own blog. Technology leaves me flummoxed – not just in real life but also in fiction. With the ubiquity of mobile phones, global positioning systems, surveillance cameras, and high-powered personal computers, I find it harder to put characters in jeopardy, harder to get them lost, and nigh-on impossible to give them secrets that can’t be accessed by a clever hacker. In a world where so much of what we do and say is monitored and recorded, is the very idea of “mystery” becoming archaic? As recently as the mid-nineties, when the detective was stranded or in trouble, he had to look for a phone booth to call for help. Today, he flips open his smartphone and the world is at his fingertips. Back then, if he wanted to find out where someone was going, he tailed him. Now, he attaches a magnetic tracking device under the suspect’s bumper or maybe he has acquired the very latest in tracking technology – a tiny, unmanned drone equipped with a videocam. Once upon a time, if the detective needed information, he sneaked into the suspect’s house or office and rifled his files. Today, he can sit at home in his PJs and hack into the suspect’s computer.
This modern wizardry enlarges everyone’s capabilities. And while it doesn’t necessarily diminish the detective’s importance, it makes it harder to achieve a plausible sense of danger and suspense. It’s not realistic to ignore the now-ordinary ways that people communicate and obtain information. But too much technology can be tiresome to write and tiresome to read (although it looks way cool on TV, at least in Abby Sciuto’s lab on NCIS). There is also a risk that the gadgetry one writes about today will seem as dated as a phone booth or a floppy disk in another ten years. The human-operated automobile may be the next thing to become obsolete. The New York Times informs me that self-driving cars using specialized lasers and radar are just around the corner. Presumably, this will make the standard car chase safer.
Setting the mystery in an earlier time will, of course, eliminate the need to consider smartphones or self-driving cars. Fashion and the arts tend to look backward for inspiration, perhaps as a reaction to all of the radical newness. This may explain the great popularity of historical fiction. Nostalgia may be as much about forgetting the present as it is about remembering the past.
Creating a character like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher who is deliberately off-line and outside the mainstream is another solution. But while Reacher doesn’t personally carry a cell phone, he encounters them wherever he goes. He knows how they operate and can use them or disable them as circumstances warrant. Computers, too. I just finished Child’s “Bad Luck and Trouble” and there was an awful lot of time spent sussing out a dead guy’s password in order to break into his computer.
One way to avoid the pervasiveness of technology is to set the action in some far-flung, primitive outpost where the natives have never heard of cell phones or the Internet. But there aren’t many of those places left. I set my third Dinah Pelerin mystery in a remote, ice-bound settlement six-hundred miles from the North Pole only to learn that it has all of the conveniences and connectedness of a big city – and a Michelin-starred restaurant to boot. Fortunately, the area is susceptible to blizzards. There’s nothing like a killer blizzard to disrupt communications and throw the detective back on her own resources.
Blizzards, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, evil saboteurs, a plane crash in the Kalahari – there are plenty of ways to isolate one’s detective and avoid the use of technology in a contemporary mystery. But I sometimes get nostalgic for the days before everybody and his mother packed a 4G wireless device replete with microcamera, talking robot, and sundry hi-tech apps. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, the Continental Op – they relied on sarcasm, landlines, Scotch whiskey, and snub-nose .38 specials. The rest depended on logical induction, inventiveness, and nerve.