Author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin is putting together a collection of excellent noir short stories called Killer Reels featuring deliciously creepy Jimmy Kiley (Oh, and you should read Kitchin’s The Rule Book and The White Gallows, too). As you can guess from the title, Killer Reels has as one of its central themes a set of films, and without giving spoilers, let me just say that Kiley is a film buff. And that’s got me thinking about how videos have found their way into crime fiction as the technology has evolved. Videos can be used as part of a plot and as evidence that sleuths find and use to catch criminals, and it’s really interesting to see how different authors choose to integrate video in their work.
For example, in Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight, Harry Bosch investigates the shooting death of Howard Elias, a controversial attorney who’s made a career out of litigating cases against the L.A.P.D., mostly for racism. Elias has recently taken the case of Michael Harris, who was arrested and convicted for the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. Harris claims that he is not guilty of the crimes and that he’s a victim of police brutality. Elias is murdered just before this case is to come to trial so Bosch suspects that murder may be connected to Stacey Kincaid’s murder. One of the things he does to try to get as much information as he can is watch the surveillance footage of Los Angeles’ Angels Flight funicular trains, where Elias was killed, to see if he can find out who the shooter was. But someone does not want Bosch to solve this case. Not only are the cops told to “back off” the scene of the crime, but when Bosch tries to go through Elias’ law office to see why he was killed, he finds that someone’s been there ahead of him. The more Bosch learns about the case, though, the more it appears that Michael Harris was set up to be convicted for Stacey Kincaid’s murder, and that some people very high up in the L.A.P.D. are helping to cover up the case and protect their mishandling of it. In the end, though, it’s actually videos and a camera that link the killer to the original crime.
In Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Superintendent Sven Andersson gets a call from his cousin, who is a school principal. One of the teachers at his school Jacob Schyttelius has not been seen in a few days, and as this isn’t like him, the principal’s concerned. Andersson agrees to look into the matter and he takes DI Irene Huss with him on a trip to the winterised cottage where Schyttelius has been staying. When they get there they find Schyttelius’ body; he’s been shot execution-style. Later that night, both of his parents are shot as well. At first it looks as though the murders might be the work of a Satanist cult. But small clues suggest that that’s just a “red herring.” When the team looks more closely at the case it begins to look as though someone may have a vendetta against the Schyttelius family. No-one can see a motive though, since that family was well-respected and liked. Bit by bit though, Andersson, Huss and the team uncover some ugly truths beneath that exterior. But they still can’t put all of the pieces of the puzzle together. It’s not until they get a look at a crucial video that they understand what’s really been going on and why these three people were murdered. In this novel, too, there’s also another very powerful use of video, but I don’t want to give away spoilers.
Video is used as a way of looking for evidence and examining the scene of a crime in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. That’s the story of the murders of Australian former politician Alec Dennet and his editor Lorraine Starke. Both were murdered while they were at a writer’s retreat near Canberra, where Dennet was writing his memoirs. Australian Federal Police officer Bradman “Brad” Chen is taking a leave of absence and at first has no plans to return to work soon. But he’s persuaded to investigate this case when his workmates show him the video taken of the crime scene. When it turns out that the manuscript that Dennet was working on is missing, Chen and his team think they’ve got the motive for the murders. Dennet was a member of the Whitlam government of the mid-1970’s, and could very well have been planning to expose some things that some very powerful people do not want exposed. Unpleasant interest from a group of Russian mobsters and a gang of South African hired thugs makes that motive even more likely. In the end though, what’s really behind the killings is quite different, and part of the evidence for that comes from that video.
Donna Malane’s Surrender also features video footage in a prominent role. When James Patrick “Snow” Wilson is found murdered with his body dumped in an alley, missing person’s expert Diane Rowe takes a special interest in the case. A year earlier, her younger sister Niki was murdered in the same way. At the time, the police suspected Wilson of the crime, but there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue the case. Then, shortly before his death, Wilson admitted the murder, saying that he’d been paid to kill Niki Rowe. He didn’t say who his “client” was though, so Rowe is determined to find out. She wants to know who’s behind her sister’s murder and she thinks if she can find out who killed Wilson, she’ll have her answer. So against the advice of her ex-husband Sean Callum, who’s a cop, she starts to ask questions. Bit by bit she starts to find out the truth about Niki’s life and in the process, discovers that her sister had a secret life. Niki Rowe was an exotic dancer who, as it turns out, provided special “customer service” to those willing to pay. In the end, that proves key to her murder (although not in the way you would think) and so does a set of videos related to the case.
And then there’s Patti Abbott’s short story The Snake Charmer, a part of her collection Monkey Justice. In The Snake Charmer, a man named Art is upset when his daughter Shannon starts to take up again with Corey Kruse, the boy who got her pregnant far too soon. Art’s always believed that Corey was “bad news,” so when Shannon’s daughter Zelda finds some pornographic videos under the sofa one day, Art is not at all surprised to conclude that Corey left them there during a surreptitious visit. It’s a piece of evidence he uses to prove that Shannon and Corey are seeing each other again and he decides that there’s only one way to prevent Corey from completely ruining Shannon’s life. The real truth about the videos is not what Art thinks though and that adds an interesting twist to the story.
I’ve used video surveillance in some of my own work. It gives the police some solid evidence in B-Very Flat, and in my third Joel Williams novel it’s a critical clue. Videos, whether they are evidence or simply a part of a plot, are woven into a lot of crime fiction novels and that makes sense. After all, whether one uploads them, downloads them, rents them or makes them, video films are an integral part of today’s technology.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Juliana Hatfield’s On Video.