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Did technology kill the murder mystery?

Gone are the days of crime-solving using the 'little grey cells'. Writers have to play a different ball game in the internet age

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot (right) and Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings. Photo: Alamy
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot (right) and Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings. Photo: Alamy

In Plum Sykes’ Party Girls Die In Pearls, a murder mystery comedy set in the mid-1980s at Oxford University, two intrepid student-sleuths busy themselves trying to solve the murder of a fellow student. The process includes gatecrashing a poorly secured autopsy procedure and shoe-leather reporting to speak to suspects.Sykes had a handful of reasons for wanting to explore a period setting for the crime. The first was simple: The setting needed to be before the advent of DNA and other advanced detection methods. “The age of crime-solving using your brain and your wits was pre-1989 and I thought it was more fun," Sykes said during a visit to Mumbai last year. “It was more Agatha Christie, and that’s what I wanted to channel."

She isn’t the only one who has had a strong incentive to plant a body in the past. As police procedures have improved and new scientific tools have evolved for crime-solving, these advances have, in some ways, made it harder to write thrillers or murder mysteries set in the present. If law enforcement has access to vast databases, drone surveillance and call-data records, what has that meant for crime fiction and the thriller—genres that subsist on obfuscation, anonymity and suspense?

“Many crime writers feel technology kills mystery," says Matthew Blakstad, a UK-based writer who has set his work in the past as well as the present, on email. “From talking to other writers, I do think this is a major reason why so many of them are choosing to turn back the clock.... Not only does this let them play with a period setting, which can be very rewarding, it also lets them write mysteries that are in some ways purer. Stories where a detective’s deductive genius can once again shine through, without resorting to modern investigative processes."

Cellphones are particularly pernicious instruments that can immediately reveal a character’s whereabouts. Forensic laboratories are ubiquitous enough to have samples tested by the day’s end. Closed-circuit television cameras are watching and the National Security Agency is listening. In short, there is enough modern equipment that Ruth Rendell or P.D. James would not have had to deal with.

Benedict Cumberbatch (right) as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson

Dan Fesperman, an American journalist and writer, has set thrillers in World War II and the Cold War, propelled by a love of history and the way it affects the present. “But, yes, it certainly does give me much more room for evasion and anonymity," he says on email. “Plus, your characters can truly be out there without a lifeline if you set them in a world without cellphones and texts and Instagram. To achieve that sort of isolation today, you either have to give them a dead battery (a device I’ve already encountered in way too many novels), take away their phones, or put them in some remote area with sketchy cell coverage." Other ways to write around devices include sudden gaps in camera footage, or characters who stay off the grid after having tasted the bitterness of tech dependence. Even Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, with a hacker as protagonist, is at its heart a locked-room mystery spun off a decades-old disappearance. Joël Dicker’s The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair also returns to a long-ago crime.

This perhaps suggests that the fictional detective of a certain vintage is a quaint item, out of place in a contemporary setting. Would a Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple or Kurt Wallander be possible to pull off today? “Private investigation has lost its meaning, because you need access to databases, to forensic laboratories, and so on," says Kirsten Reimers, a German critic and juror for the Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Prize). “So the lone wolf, the hard-boiled PI (investigator), is an anachronism nowadays. There are still authors who are writing detective novels with heartbroken, melancholic, hard-drinking PIs—but their novels are looking quite old-fashioned."

The starting point for Anglo-American crime fiction is widely credited to Edgar Allan Poe, with the genre’s popularity consolidating with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Though Holmes, and then Poirot after him, cemented detective work as the craft of the armchair investigator with plenty of little grey cells, the form has always been supple and variegated enough to accommodate all sorts.

Striving to snatch crime away from the body in the boudoir or country house and shove it into the mean streets where real lives unfolded, Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Art Of Murder (1950), lamented on the genre’s stiltedness: “...they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction," he wrote. “They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world…. But if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen, they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived."

Life as it is lived today is often in the treacherous online world, where trolling, fake news and data theft are the new body in the library. “More and more writers are waking up to the potential of online crime," says Blakstad. “Many are doing this by reinventing the classic mystery. In the UK, writers like Stav Sherez, Rosie Claverton and Helen Fitzgerald—and many others—are finding many different and engaging ways of doing this. All are ‘upgrading’ the classic detective novel for the internet age."

Even as it has forced writers into tight spots, technology has conversely offered fresh possibilities in both crime-fighting techniques and new kinds of crimes themselves. In Blakstad’s debut novel Sockpuppet, a female politician faces online harassment and email hacking. In Fallen Angel, he mines the dotcom bubble and computer viruses. In Zoë Beck’s The Supplier, drugs are ordered on the darknet and delivered by drones. In Fesperman’s Unmanned, he looks at the eerie intimacy between a drone “pilot" and the subjects he surveils. Stav Sherez, the British author, writes about beginning The Intrusions, a serial killer story set in a backpacker hostel:“The more I wrote, the more I realized I could not ignore technology"—and the book swiftly moves into a frightening online world.

“Personally, I think the world of internet security is the most interesting technology today, and I love using ethical and not-so-ethical hackers to ferret out information," says Libby Fischer Hellmann, a best-selling American crime writer, on email. “But again, I think writers need to be careful not to make it too facile or use hackers too often. The suspension of disbelief is rising." While advances can be fascinating and useful plot devices, Fesperman points out the danger of them overshadowing the story or simply being too convenient. “I do think sometimes that all of this technology has become a means to too many short cuts in crime writing," he says. “For example, when you want to have your investigator track down some minor character who can provide a key detail. In the old-school books, that might require some cunning and persistence. Now the tendency is to have the detective plug a name into a database and zero right in."

Crime fiction has always had to keep pace with developments in technology, but it has perhaps not had to deal with the pace of these now compared to, say, 50 years ago. “But you can be certain that both police and criminals are learning how to use these new tools to their own advantage and we, as crime writers, can only follow," writes Sherez. Still, Hellmann says, there will always be room for the standard procedural too. “...if the plot is credible and the characters are three-dimensional and appealing enough, it doesn’t really matter about the time frame or the technology used," she says.

Of course, the genre itself has pivoted on much more than the revelation of a secret or who did it and how. It has been a lens for distilling a portrait of the milieu it is rooted in, its social problems, moral wretchedness and urban decay. Feeding off technology is but a natural outcome.

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