Not very long ago I did a post about certain kinds of characters we don’t see very much in today’s crime fiction. That’s mostly because society has changed so much in the last century. With those changes and especially with the evolution of technology, we’ve also seen new kinds of characters in crime fiction. And that makes sense when you consider how different the world has become. Here are just a few examples so that you can get a sense of what I mean; there are, of course, a lot more.
One of the more recent character types we’ve seen in crime fiction is the ecology-minded activist. As we’ve become more aware of the importance of the environment and the other animals with which we share the Earth, there’ve been more eco-minded characters in crime fiction. For instance, in Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage, several groups of activists converge on Kingsmarkham when plans are made for a new roadway that will cut through Framhurst Great Wood. Neither Inspector Reg Wexford nor his wife Dora is happy about these plans. In fact, Dora is a member of a local council that’s actively opposing the construction. But then the demonstrations turn ugly and the activists take a group of hostages including Dora Wexford. Then there’s a death. Now Wexford and his team have to not only free the hostages if they can but also solve the murder. Among other things this novel shows just how passionate people can be about the environment.
Ecological issues are also at the heart of Marilyn Victor and Michael Allen Mallory’s Killer Instinct. In that novel, zookeeper and television host Lavender “Snake” Jones travels to Northern Minnesota to film a documentary about wolves and the Minnesota Wolf Institute (MWI). When Jones gets there she finds that a lot of suspicion and dislike has built up between the MWI staff and local hunters. To make matters worse, an eco-terrorist group calling itself Stewards of Superior (SOS) has been agitating in the area and inflaming the already tense situation. Then, the bodies of four illegally-killed wolves are found near Wolf Lake. Jones’ friend wolf biologist Gina Brown blames local hunter Ivar Bjorkland for the murders and gets into a confrontation with him. When Bjorkland is murdered, Jones wonders whether Brown might be responsible. Then there’s another death. And another. As Jones tries to find out who’s responsible for the murders Victor and Mallory also explore the question of how to protect animal resources in a responsible way.
Another kind of character we’ve seen evolve in modern crime fiction is the forensic specialist. Our knowledge of forensics has vastly expanded in the last few decades, and crime fiction has kept pace with the times. Some crime fiction sleuths are themselves forensic experts. For example, Simon Beckett’s David Hunter is a forensic anthropologist who is called to the scene in certain cases where bodies are found. For instance in Written in Bone, a charred body has been discovered in the ruins of a fire on Runa, a remote island in the Outer Hebrides. Hunter discovers that the body is of a woman whose death was meant to look an accidental burning. When Hunter’s investigation shows that the woman was murdered, he finds that the island of Runa is hiding all sorts of dark secrets.
Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway is also a forensic specialist. She heads the University of North Norfolk’s Forensic Archaeology program and is called to the scene in cases such as The House at Sea’s End, where bones are unearthed that are difficult to identify. In that novel, a team of archaeologists is studying Broughton Sea’s End where erosion is taking a toll on the area. When they discover the remains of six people, Galloway is called in to see what she can find out about them. She discovers that they belong to World War II-era Germans who were murdered. Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson are looking into the reasons for the murders when journalist and historian Dieter Eckhart, who was working on the story himself, is murdered. Now Galloway and Nelson have to connect that present-day murder to the past murders and find out how they relate to the area’s history.
Even when a novel or series doesn’t feature a forensic expert, that expertise is often woven into the story. In today’s world, I think it would be difficult to have for example a police procedural that didn’t include at least a mention of the forensic work involved in identifying the victim, manner and method of murder and so on. And no mention of developments in forensic technology would be complete without at least a word or two about the use of DNA matching in modern crime fiction. There are too many examples for me to mention here. Suffice it to say that any novel that involves forensic expertise to any extent is likely to include some mention of DNA-matching technology.
It goes without saying that computer technology has revolutionised just about everything we do. So computer experts have found their way into crime fiction too. For instance, in Debra Purdy Kong’s Fatal Encryption, out-of-work computer expert Alex Bellamy is hired by McKinley’s Department Store. A hacker has been stalking the company’s computer system and the company management wants Bellamy to stop the person responsible. Then, the hacker turns more serious and threatens to encrypt all of the company’s vital files unless the company pays a ransom of ten million dollars. Bellamy isn’t sure at first who is responsible, but one of the suspects is Max Ternoway, who may be using the hacking as a way to get back at McKinley’s for being fired. Recently Max’s brother Zachary was found murdered and Bellamy believes that the two incidents may be related even if Max himself isn’t responsible for the hacking. Now Bellamy has to find the hacker before he’s fired for incompetence or becomes the killer’s next victim.
Fans of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series know that one of Brunetti’s colleagues Elettra Zorzi is an expert at computers, the internet and hacking. Officially she’s the assistant to vice-questore Giuseppe Patta. But unofficially she runs the Venice questura and part of the reason she’s so good at her job is her skill at computer technology. She helps Brunetti with many of his cases and often comes up with background information on the people involved in those cases that Brunetti would find it difficult to learn by more traditional methods.
There are many, many examples too of computer wizards who come in and out of novels and series even if they aren’t featured. In fact except for historical mysteries, it’d be difficult to have a believable crime novel in which computers weren’t used at all for anything. They’re that prevalent in today’s world.
Characters such as eco-activists, forensic experts and computer wizards highlight the way that changes in society affect what happens in crime fiction. I’ve only had space in this post for those few examples. Which kinds of characters do you see in today’s crime fiction that show how much society has changed? If you’re a writer, how do you integrate these new kinds of characters?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ New Kid in Town.