As this is posted, it’s 103 years since Thomas Edison invented the telescribe, a device for recording telephone conversations. Since that time, of course, technology has dramatically changed the way conversations are recorded. But the basic idea – that someone can record and later listen to one’s telephone conversations – hasn’t.
The notion of recording private telephone conversations without consent is controversial. On the one hand, wiretapping can lead to valuable information that catches criminals. On the other, there are serious issues of privacy and civil rights when telephone conversations are recorded. So, in general (not to say this always happens!), the police need a warrant in order to be allowed to record someone’s conversations without that person’s consent.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of mentions of wiretapping in crime fiction. And it doesn’t just happen in spy thrillers. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more than I ever could.
In Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, we meet professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and is trying to live a legitimate life, with a legitimate job. Then, he gets the chance to visit a luxury Manhattan apartment building. The visit gives Anderson the idea for a major heist: robbing the entire building. To do that, he’ll need materials and support, so he begins to enlist both from his contacts. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been wiretapping several of those contacts. So, most his conversations with those people are being recorded. In fact, plenty of the story is told through transcripts of those recordings. As Anderson begins to make final plans, the question becomes: will the police find out about the heist in time to be able to stop it?
James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover is the third in his Underworld USA trilogy. The novel takes place between 1968 and 1972, and it follows the political and other machinations of those years (e.g. J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with civil rights leaders, the Mob’s behind-the-scenes development of casinos, and Nixon’s political ambitions). Three people – Wayne Tedrow, Jr. (who is a drug runner), Dwight Holly (an FBI agent whose father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan), and Don ‘Crutch’ Crutchfield (who does menial PI work) – are caught up in all of the complexity. The plot involves several ‘backroom deals’ and more than one betrayal. And it features quite a lot of wiretapping, which shouldn’t be surprising to those who know what the US political situation was during that era.
In Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, Anna Travis joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. At the time, the squad is facing a perplexing case. Seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been murdered, and the profile of her death fits that of six other women who’ve also been killed. But there are major differences. For instance, the other victims were older sex workers, but Melissa was young, and not a sex worker. Still, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton believes that the same killer is responsible. After a time, the team settles on a suspect: up-and-coming television/film star Alan Daniels. But it’s going to be difficult. He is beloved, wealthy, and well-connected. What’s more, there’s very little evidence that conclusively links him to the crime. He may, in fact, be innocent. As the story goes on, the team uses recordings and ‘wires’ to find out the truth, and it’s interesting to see how those fit in.
Ed McBain’s Criminal Conversation (he wrote this one as Evan Hunter) features an ambitious assistant district attorney named Michael Welles. He has a particular loathing for the Mob, so when a thug named Dominick di Nobili is ready tell what he knows about Mob operations, Welles is only too happy to listen. It seems that de Nobili owed a big gambling debt to a loan shark, and the result is that he’s now caught between two major crime families: the Colottis and the Faviolas. As he sees it, he’s safer in police custody than he is on the streets. Welles arranges for all sorts of telephone tapping and other surveillance, thinking he finally has the opportunity to bring down these crime groups. But what he doesn’t know is what the wiretapping will actually reveal. When he finds that out, he learns that it’s all much closer to home than he imagined.
And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Closers. In that novel, Harry Bosch is working in the Open-Unsolved Unit of the LAPD. And, in one plot thread, he re-opens the murder of sixteen-year-old Rebecca Verloren, who was taken from her parents’ home and shot. Bosch finds that there’s a possible DNA match between evidence on the gun used in the crime, and a man named Roland Mackey. Now that his interest in Mackey is piqued, Bosch wants to trace Rebecca’s last few days and weeks, to see if there’d been any contact with Mackey. More than that, Bosch wants to record Mackey’s telephone conversations. As he says to his colleague, Kiz Rider,
‘‘…since Nine-Eleven and the Patriot Act it’s easier for us to get a wiretap.’
And she agrees:
‘The word’s sort of gotten around that this is a tool we can use now.’’
That said, though, approval for recording telephone conversations isn’t usually given capriciously.
And there’s good reason for that. Recording and listening to someone’s telephone conversations is an invasion of that person’s privacy. But at the same time, it can yield valuable information. So, it’s little wonder that tactic is used in some criminal investigation. An, of course, that means it shows up in crime fiction.
*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.