The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Technology

TechnologyWe’re at another stop today as we of the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme continue our treacherous travels through the alphabet. Thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for making all the arrangements and keeping us as safe as can be expected. 😉

Our visit today is to the main offices of the legendary T Company, which makes all sorts of different kinds of ingenious little devices. Everyone’s busy planning what sorts of things they’ll bring home from the factory tour, so I think this is a good time to share my contribution for this stop: technology. 

Technology is, of course, critical to today’s society. We can accomplish so much with it, and it’s become an important element of most of our lives. But it’s very much a proverbial double-edged sword. As any crime fiction fan can tell you, technology figures in a lot of mayhem too. I’ve only space here for a few examples, but you’ll soon see what I mean.

In Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance, Nero Wolfe gets a visit from Maria Maffei, who is worried about her brother Carlos. He’s disappeared with no explanation and she’s certain he’s come to harm. She’s proven right when Carlos is found stabbed to death. An article found in his possession suggests that his murder might be connected to the death of Peter Barstow, president of Holland University. Barstow was golfing when he suddenly died, seemingly from a stroke. But as it turns out, he was killed by a specially-designed golf club that Carlos Maffei made. Wolfe knows that if he finds out who killed Barstow, he’ll have the key to discovering who paid Maffei to make the golf club. So he and Archie Goodwin look into Barstow’s family life, business associations and social life to find out who would have wanted to commit murder. The sleuths do solve the mystery of the killer’s identity, and when the killer begins to suspect that they know, there’s an interesting battle of wits between Wolfe and Goodwin on the one hand and the murderer on the other.

Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear also makes some –er – very interesting use of technology. In that novel, cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver is spending some time serving as a visiting fellow at the United States Overseas College (USOC). The plan is for him to give a series of guest lectures at various bases throughout Europe. But right from the start things go rather badly for him. First he’s attacked in his hotel room by two men who apparently think he has something of value. He makes a report to police officer John Lau, who begins to work with Oliver to try to find out who the attackers are. Then Oliver gets drawn into a whole web of international espionage and counter-espionage. Tom Marks and Hilaire Delvaux, two leaders in the NATO Security Directorate (NSD)’s counterespionage bureau, ask to see him. They tell him that they suspect Soviet spies are trying to steal something (although they’re not sure exactly what), and they want Oliver to report to them if he sees anything or anyone suspicious. Not seeing much choice in the matter, he agrees. Not long after that he’s attacked and nearly killed. He runs into other difficulties too as he travels to the different European bases. All of this convinces him that if he doesn’t figure out who at the USOC might be helping the Soviets, he’s going to continue to be a target. So he keeps asking questions and eventually gets to the truth about what’s really going on. In one particular scene, he and Lau are touring Spain’s Prado Museum. That’s when they spot a strange man with an umbrella. Something about him unsettles both men, and it turns out they are wise to be concerned. The umbrella is actually a very ingenious piece of technology that hides a gun. No, Oliver isn’t killed, but it shows you just how dangerous technology can be.

We see that in Lindy Cameron’s Redback, too. In that novel, we meet Bryn Gideon, leader of a crack Australian team of retrieval experts called Redback. Their specialty is rescuing people who are trapped in dangerous situations and they’re called in when the delegates to the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference are taken hostage by a group of local rebels. Team Redback succeeds in rescuing the hostages but soon gets drawn into a battle of wits against a shadowy group of international terrorists that uses local or regional terror groups to do its ‘dirty work.’ That turns out to be the connection among two murders, a devastating train bombing, and an explosion on a U.S. military base, among other violence. And just what do these terrorists use to keep their group organised and recruit and train new members? That’s right: technology. It turns out that they communicate via a new video game called Global War Tek.  See what I mean about technology?

In Cat Connor’s Killerbyte, New Zealand ex-pat and FBI operative Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway is passionate about poetry – her own and others’. So she co-moderates an online poetry chat room called Cobwebs. The chat room turns deadly when one of the members Carter McLaren shows up at Ellie’s home to threaten her after being banned from the room. He’s arrested but later his body is found in the trunk of Conway’s car. Conway wants to clear her name and more than that, wants to find out who killed a member (even a former member) of the chat room. So she and her co-moderator and lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly try to track down the murderer. Then there’s another death. And another. It’s obvious now that the killer is targeting chat room members. Despite all of their Internet skills and knowledge, and in spite of Conway’s FBI background and skills, this killer always seems to stay one step ahead of them. But they’re not without resources themselves. In the end a non-technical (and very useful) clue puts Conway and Connelly on the right track. But throughout this novel, both they and the killer make some fairly ingenious use of technology, and in the killer’s case, it turns out to be deadly.

There’s a frightening use of technology in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is slowly returning to duty after a line-of-duty injury that killed one of his colleagues and left the other with paralysis. He’s never really easy to work with and since his return he’s become so difficult that he’s ‘promoted’ to head a new department specially set up to investigate cases of ‘special interest.’ The first case he and his assistant Hafez al-Assad investigate is the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard. Everyone’s always believed that she was killed in a tragic incident on a ferry, but little hints soon suggest that she may still be alive. So Mørck and Assad work to try to find her before it’s too late. And they’re up against some fairly sophisticated and scary technology as they do so…

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s When the Saints Go Marching In, the first of his Adam Saint novels. Saint is a specialist with the Canadian Disaster Recovery Agency (CDRA). His job is to travel to any place where Canada, its interests or its citizens are involved in any kind of disaster. Saint lives a very high-technology sort of life and since a lot of what the CDRA does and knows is classified, he also is familiar with a lot of high-security technology. Everything changes when he travels to Magadan, Russia, where CDRA head Geoffrey Krazinkski has been killed at a plane crash site. The death is passed off as a tragic accident, but Saint is soon certain that it was no accident. He’s starting to ask questions about it when a personal emergency brings him suddenly back to Canada. Saint’s personal matter means the end of his career with the CDRA, In fact, all of his access codes, all of the technology he usually uses, and all of his resources are cut off. But that doesn’t stop him from asking questions about what happened. In fact he turns out to be more effective after officially leaving the CDRA. He gets drawn into a very dangerous mission with international implications. At the heart of it all? Greed and the willingness to use technology to satisfy it.

So as you see, technology can be deadly. Not that I’d ever give up my Internet access or anything quite that drastic, but one does have to be extremely cautious around technology. Now, let’s go take that tour. Lots of fascinating little devices I can show you there… 😉


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Anthony Bidulka, Cat Connor, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lindy Cameron, Rex Stout

26 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Technology

  1. Margot, I never would have thought of technology in connection with Rex Stout, as all his books were written before 1976. But you are right, technology has been around a long time, and I think of technology as “new” technology, like computers. Along that line, even the Flavia de Luce mysteries set in Post WWII England by Alan Bradley have technology as an element, since Flavia is a dedicated self-taught chemist.

    A series that deals with more current technology is the Tourist series by Olen Steinhauer. Since spies can be connected by and communicated with via technology, and don’t even need a home. In this series, the spies are called tourists and travel around from job to job, living in hotel rooms. Of course, this mode of communication makes them vulnerable also.

    • Tracy – Oh, yes, the Tourist series!! I’ll confess I’m thoroughly familiar with it, but from what I know of it it’s a perfect example of how technology can be used against a person. I’m glad you filled in that gap.
      It’s interesting that when we think of ‘technology’ we tend to think of the most up-to-date examples such as iPhones, social media or satellite surveillance. But really, technology has been around as you say for a very long time, and people have been inventive with it for a long time too…

  2. Margot: In the second of Steinhauer’s trilogy, The Nearest Exit, featuring Milo Weaver the most modern technology is manipulated into killing communications that move too swiftly to be stopped.

    In the Ava Lee series by Ian Hamilton the sleuth penetrates the maze of modern financial transactions through a combination of technology, Chinese connections and physical force.

    Of my most recent reads, The Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver poses challenging questions about the use and abuse of ultra modern surveillance by governments and private industry.

    What has struck me is how intrusive modern technology has become.

    • Bill – You know, you have a point about the omnipresence of modern technology. Not only is it intrusive in the sense of privacy but also in other senses. Banking, national infrastructures, communications and a lot more are now maintained by technology. Without it….well, that’s the whole theme of certain books and series. And I think it reflects a growing acknowledgment of how very ever-present technology really is.
      Thanks, too, for your examples. All of them show that technology isn’t just something that’s a helpful tool to get things done. It can be turned against people too. That’s why I agree with the saying that technology is a good servant, but a bad master..

  3. In Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men, dating from 1905, there is some very important business with a telephone and electricity, resulting in a death. I’m not sure it’s actually very convincing, it seems unlikely, but I think it probably went down fine at the time: telephones were very modern, uptodate technology, and most people wouldn’t perhaps have known how much phones and electrical supplies were connected. Or not.

    • Moira – Thanks. A great example of how our definition and understanding technology has changed over time. As you say, in 1905, telephones were brand-new and not everyone had them. Not everyone had electricity in the home either. So it’s understandable that the a plot using telephones and electricity might not be credible by today’s standards. An interesting look at the views of the day.

  4. I’m in the middle of The Ambitious Card by John Gaspard at the moment (and enjoying it a lot). The first murder is a fairly traditional stabbing, but the second involves using a CPAP, a piece of medical technology, in an innovative and fatal way. Somehow using medical equipment to kill seems particularly wicked…

    • FictionFan – Oh, I am looking forward to your review on that one! I’m glad you’re enjoying it. And you’re right; it does seem all the worse when killers use medical technology to accomplish the deed. I’ve seen that in more than one medical thriller and you’re right; it’s really eerie.

  5. The thing with technology in crime fiction for me, is how quickly it can age and make the novel seem dated. Over the past couple of years I have read a few books that may be about 10-15 years old. They were incredibly outdated. The story was still there but the use of the everyday kind of technology like computers gave it as surreal dated, weary feel. The technological world moves so fast and our books live so long. It’s a strange one to read.

    • Rebecca – You put that so well! That’s the big risk when the technology in a novel is too specific. It changes so fast that within a few short years, the book can be dated. I think it’s a better idea to be just a bit more vague with technology (e.g. have a character use a mobile instead of a very specific kind that does a specific thing). That way it’s less likely that the book will feel dated.

  6. The use of mobile phones really has changed crime fiction though. I was rereading Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase recently and wondering what would have happened if Harriet could have called the police from her mobile as soon as she discovered the body. Then I read earlier novels by Denise Mina and it only dawned on me gradually that the protagonist has to find and use public payphones instead of mobiles. I don’t know why it feels so unnatural: that is the world I grew up in, after all. I resisted using a mobile until 2001 or 2002.

    • Marina Sofia- That’s quite true about mobiles. Certainly they’ve changed the way we communicate, but they’e also changed a lot of other things too. Certainly the investigation of Have His Carcase would have been very different if Harriet had had a mobile. And I’m thinking of Christie’s And Then There Were None, too, which would also have been potentially very different if there’s been mobiles at taht time.

  7. Col

    I think I belong to the age of the dinosaur, a lot of the books I read are pre-pc, pre-internet, pre-mobile phones, where there is less of a reliance on technology to aid the investigation.

    • Col – To me it’s amazing how quickly all of this modern technology has become available. Crime fiction from as little as fifteen years ago doesn’t have the same technology as today’s does.

  8. I think technology now makes it harder and harder to write crime novels. There is so much know you need to understand in terms of what can be culled from cellphones., computers. GPS, texts messages, etc. I’d be tempted to set everything in Stout time when it was much simpler.

    • Patti – There is a lot to remember isn’t there? And what’s more, it all keeps changing really quickly. So two years after you write a book where everything’s cutting-edge, it’s obsolete.

  9. Margot – Another fascinating topic. In particular I enjoy mysteries where technology goes wrong (or when the human element fails us in manipulating said technology), with unfortunate results. An example I think of is Ian Rankin’s Bleeding Hearts, though this is not a straight mystery per se but of the assassin subgenre. Anyway what’s interesting is that Bleeding Hearts was inspired more or less by true events, a reminder that technology can go wrong in real life as well as fiction!

    • Bryan – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. As I read your comment, I was thinking about the way humans seem to want and need technology while at the same time fearing that it will go wrong or that it will ‘take over’ everything. That’s been a theme in fiction, crime and otherwise, for a very long time. I’m thinking for instance of the views about positronic robots in Asimov’s Elijah Baley series. And thanks for mentioning Bleeding Hearts. It is indeed a reminder that technology is not a panacaea…

  10. What a difference the world makes as it evolves. The many mysteries that I have read the only technology is the phone and the basic crime labs. It goes with the times. When I started reading in the early 80’s, there were no smartphones, DNA testing, mobile crime labs, or even computer to that matter. God old deductions on the good guys part.

    • Scott – You’re quite right. Within just the last thirty years, there’ve been so many developments in technology that allow for an entirely different kind of detection. It’s meant a new kind of sleuth too, or a least a sleuth who works in different ways.

  11. kathy d.

    As a Luddite, I say that technological upgrades in crime fiction can be used quite well. In today’s high-tech world, it’s amazing how computers have changed communications, record-keeping and more.
    A friend told me that he couldn’t cope with his adult children’s world travels years ago before email, texting, and cell phones — so now he’s appropriately connected with them.
    And today the use of DNA evidence has helped to exonerate people who are in prison, even on death row, from cases decided decades ago.
    However, it’s annoying when a character forgets or loses his/her cell phone or its battery has run out — and the charger is elsewhere, of course. Often this happens to women so they are in peril without their life-lines. Or else an urgent message is on the cell phone but they forget to check it or leave the phone somewhere. Grrr. This can be quite irritating.
    Using technology requires a lot of knowledge by the writer, and in some ways makes crafting the plot line more difficult, but it can be quite useful.
    So much information can be gotten from Internet searches and data bases.
    Without high technology, where would Elettra Zorzi — and, thus, Guido Brunetti — be in their investigations?

    • Kathy – It is really amazing isn’t it what technology can allow us to do that couldn’t be done before. There’s communication, there’s the building and maintaining of all of our social lives and networks, there’s record-keeping, and of course, crime-solving. It’s revolutionised modern life, so it makes sense that we should also see technology play an active role in crime fiction. And yes, Elettra Zorzi’s use of technology in Donna Leon’s series is a terrific example of that.

      At the same time, I do think you’re right that it adds complexity to telling a story. Today’s author has to be aware of technology and use it to enough of an extent that people can believe the story. But if the technology is too specific, the book’s dated in a short time. And as you say, there’s the issue of sleuths forgetting to check messages and so on – the real eye-rolling things. So it’s also important that the sleuth be smart about technology or else it’s just frustrating.

  12. I like this Post.

    I saw a “typo.”

    …begins to work with Oliver try to find out who the attackers are…

    Try should either be “trying” or “to try”.

    …begins to work with Oliver, trying to find out who the attackers are…

    …begins to work with Oliver to try to find out who the attackers are…

    I really LOVE your Alphabet in Crime Fiction posts! 🙂

    On 8/18/13, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

  13. That Adam Saint novel sounds pretty good! 😀

    On 8/18/13, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

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