Hello It’s Me*

TelephonesYou don’t see many public telephones any more, at least not in the area where I live. In part that’s because so many people have mobile ‘phones; there’s just no need for them. Telephones have become rich storehouses of people’s information, so when there is a murder, the police check the victim’s telephone to see who might have contacted that person and when the last calls were placed. All of this helps to narrow down the possibilities when it comes to suspects and motives for murder.

Actually telephone records have been around for a long time as very useful tools. And an interesting comment exchange with Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about that. Now, I’ll wait while you go visit Rebecca’s blog. It’s an excellent resource for readers and writers of crime fiction. And Rebecca hosts the online Crime Book Club, which discusses a different crime novel each month (This month: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Wednesday 16 April, 8PM GMT).

Back now? Right – telephones. Hercule Poirot uses records of telephone calls in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, we meet the various members of the Lee family, which is headed by unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch Simeon Lee. When he invites his family to gather at Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one really wants to accept. But at the same time, no-one dares to refuse. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby with a friend, and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. It’s not easy either because all of the family members have motives for murder. One of them is Lee’s son George, a Member of Parliament and very concerned about his image. He claims that he was making a telephone call at the time of the murder. It’s interesting to find out what the truth about that telephone call reveals about George Lee. What’s more, it shows that even then, detectives traced calls.

We see that in Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws too. Perry Mason’s been hired by Eva Belter to stop sleazy tabloid reporter Frank Locke from blackmailing her. Locke found out that she was having an affair with an up-and-coming politician and plans to milk that for all it’s worth. Mason agrees to meet with Locke to try to get him to leave Belter alone. They do meet but Mason is sure that Locke knows more than he’s saying. So he follows Locke one day, ending up at a local hotel. There, he arranges with the hotel telephone operator to trace a call that Locke makes. The information from that call gives Mason the information he needs about why his client has been targeted for blackmail. But that’s when things get complicated. When Eva’s husband George is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect and appeals to Mason to clear her name.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine takes place in 1990’s Shanghai, not many years before mobile telephones became easily available to almost everyone. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant Yu Guangming investigate the murder of national model worker Guang Hongying. Her body is found one afternoon in the Baili Canal, and it’s thought at first that she was raped and killed by a taxi driver. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. This case will be delicate though, because the victim was linked to several powerful people. Still, Chen and Yu persevere. One of the leads they follow is a series of telephone calls that ties the victim to one particular person. Those calls are all made from and received at a public telephone and it’s interesting to see how those records are kept.

As I say, most people now have mobile telephones, and those records can prove extremely helpful. Of course, people who want to cover their tracks know that too, so they often use pay-as-you-go ‘phones. But the police can find those useful too at times. In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage for instance, DS Bob Tidey is working with Garda Detective Rose Cheney on the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a dubious banker who made a lot of money during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, but got into serious financial trouble when the crash came. He did business with some dangerous people and the detectives want to know who those associates are. They’re lucky enough to find Sweetman’s pay-as-you-go ‘phone, which he used for his off-the-record dealings, and that discovery proves quite informative.

Today’s telephones are also frequently used for texting, and those texts can also be very helpful to detectives. In C.J. Box’s Below Zero for instance, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is on the trail of the Mad Archer, a poacher who shoots animals and leaves them to die. Then Pickett’s daughter Sheridan begins receiving text messages from her foster sister April Keeley, whom everyone thought was tragically killed six years earlier. Pickett rushes home to find out the truth about those texts. If they were from April, then he wants to trace her. Where has she been and why hasn’t she contacted her foster family? If the texts are not from April, Pickett wants to know who would want to play the sick game of pretending they are. Those text messages turn out to be very helpful in leading Pickett to the truth about April.

Of course, it’s not always as easy as it may seem to use telephone records. In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Constable Molly Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate the Christmastime deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and his friend Ewan Williams. Part of that investigation is a set of interviews with the victims’ friends. At one point Winters asks one of them if Jason got a call on Christmas Eve:


‘‘I don’t know. We didn’t keep him under armed guard, you know. Can’t you check his phone calls or something?’
Everyone knew too much these days, or thought they did, about police methods. Ewan and Jason both had cell phones on them. Completely ruined by their immersion in the icy river. Winters had put in a request for the phone records of the dead men but had yet to hear back. It was a slow week everywhere.’


It’s sometimes a difficult process to get telephone information, although of course, you don’t see that on television or films.

Still, telephone records give extremely valuable information in solving cases. With modern messaging, Internet capability and so on, they’re increasingly individual too. Little wonder cops always look for people’s telephones.

Oh, sorry, I’ve got a call – must take this. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Todd Rundgren song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gene Kerrigan, Qiu Xiaolong, Vicki Delany

28 responses to “Hello It’s Me*

  1. Telephones do part such an interesting part of police investigations.I think today authors have a bit harder time when putting their characters in dangerous situations because as you mentioned everyone has a cellphone and can call for help. While there are still some area where cellphone services doesn’t work, authors still have to contend with would the victim use the phone to take a photo, would the killer think to check for a phone, etc. I can remember going out to cover wrecks (in the country) at 2 and 3 in the morning without worrying and no phone. Now I feel lost if I go down the street 2 miles without my phone. 🙂

    • Mason – I know how you feel. I always feel so vulnerable without my ‘phone. And if you think about it, it’s quite a recent phenomenon. I’ve done many road trips in the past, for instance, without a ‘phone. But now as you say I wouldn’t drive the 20 minutes to my office without my ‘phone. Interesting change in the way we think. And you’re absolutely right about what that does to crime fiction. Because so many people do have ‘phones, it’s very hard to set up a situation where a character can’t make an emergency call for help. It can happen, but it has to be very carefully done. Otherwise it’s just not credible.

  2. I have often thought how much easier crime fiction was in the past without the victim having easy access to a phone or the police to their records. In The Accident (which I’ve just read) the phone was deliberately missing so that no-one could trace the phone calls in the days before Charlotte went missing clearly to get around this issue…

  3. IN Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, there is some funny business with the phones – two people in conspiracy are able to make it seem that someone was ringing from long-distance, so must have an alibi. I never really knew if the ploy would have worked. And I can’t exactly remember why it’s quite so important in the Hitchcock film Dial M for Murder, but it pretty much must be, mustn’t it, with that title?

    • Moira – I’m so glad you mentioned Taken at the Flood. You’re absolutely right that there is a long-distance call that’s ‘rigged’ so to speak. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers but you’re absolutely right. At the time it’s possible it might have worked – certainly wouldn’t now! And as for Dial M For Murder, it’s the timing of a telephone call that plays a big role in the plot. Glad you mentioned that one as it’s such a well-done suspenseful film (in my opinion). Of course, I’m a Hitchcock fan.

  4. Very salutary to be reminded that 80 years ago the telephone was already a feature of mysteries and that then, as now, carried quite a lot of excitement and even mystique around them – guess we’re stuck with them now! Thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – I suspect that we are. But at least we have answerphones and voice mail and so on if we don’t want to take a call. 🙂 – And it’s interesting that it only really took a few decades from the time ‘phones and ‘phone calls became commercially popular to the time when they start appearing in mysteries as plot points.

  5. Back in the Middle Ages when I was young, we used to have party-lines – two or more families sharing one phone line because there weren’t enough lines available. Not a crime story exactly but one of HP Lovecraft’s horror stories made really effective use of that by allowing all the members of a village to hear the awful things that were happening to a victim of the terrifying aliens over the phones without being able to do anything to stop it – I think the story was called ‘The Dunwich Horror’. Sleep well! 😉

    • FictionFan – Oh, yes, party lines! So many stories went around town that way didn’t they? I can’t imagine anyone being willing to do that now. And thanks for the mention of that Lovecraft story. Little wonder you’re up so early, with all of those fretful porpentines. Had trouble sleeping? 😉

  6. Col

    I think I prefer pre-modern technology books – mobile phones, computers, etc where there is more leg-work involved in investigations. I enjoy contemporary stuff as well, but I think I’m more old school at heart, probably a sign of my age!

    • Col – There is something satisfying about an old school novel where the case is solved through more leg-work. Today’s technology has to be integrated or at least acknowledged in modern crime fiction novels or they don’t seem credible. But I like the more traditional kind of detecting too. Which may simply reflect my age too.

  7. I think cell phones have made such a fundamental change in novels. Not just as record keeping devices but as the way people communicate now. You can’t help but notice them as key plot devices in almost book you read or show or movie you see. IMHO, it’s almost become a bore.

    • Patti – They really have woven their way into so many plots, haven’t they? It’s gotten to the point where I can’t think of a novel that takes place in modern times that doesn’t include that kind of communication.

  8. I agree with Patti! I heard an interview with Ann Patchet, Stat of Wonder, and she says cell phones are ruining fiction. That is why she had most of State of Wonder set in the Amazon though she said even there people were getting calls. Probably why people like reading and writing historical fiction!

    • Jan – Oh, that’s really interesting about Ann – thanks for sharing. And I agree that it can get tedious when a novel is overburdened with too much use of telephones. Yes, in that way historical fiction can be awfully enjoyable!

  9. It was very interesting to realize that Agatha Christie books had telephone records as a plot point (I had read the book, just had forgotten about that). I prefer books written pre-cell phone technology (and without a huge emphasis on computer records) also, or historical fiction that avoids that issue. Yet you read posts by people saying anything earlier is dated because technology doesn’t figure into the investigation.

    • Tracy – You’re not alone. A lot of people prefer books that predate a lot of technology. Some people even feel that adding in technology can date a novel because technology changes so fast. And of course, it does.

  10. Stumbled onto your blog and I love your insights! I look forward to reading more and looking into your works!


  11. I remember reading an early Denise Mina novel and the main protagonist had to keep searching for a phone box or didn’t have coins to make crucial calls and I was initially somewhat puzzled as to why she didn’t use her mobile. But I still remember those days, when there would queues around the block in the holiday resorts to try and call our parents back home. (Good excuse, incidentally, not to.)

    • Marina Sofia – I remember those times too when you had to wait to make a call, and then only if you had the change. And yes, a good excuse not to call home if you weren’t of a mind to. Now you need to use an excuse such as ‘My battery died,’ or ‘I couldn’t get any reception.’

  12. Thank you Margot, for once again being such a great cheerleader for the crime book club!

    As for mobile phones, what I have noticed is that they can run out of battery power quite quickly because of the amount of use we give them and this could be quite useful for any crime writer. I listen to podcasts in the car and doing this seems to suck the battery power straight out of my phone, so on long journeys I have to be really careful.

    Phones and their capabilities and failings are definitely an interesting source for use in any novel.

    • Rebecca – It’s always my pleasure to mention the crime book club and your excellent blog.
      You’re right too about ‘phones. Especially if one’s listening to podcasts or using certain apps, they do indeed get drained of power very quickly. And of course that’s a great fictional setup for a writer if one wants one’s character to be ‘phone-less.’ In real life it can be a problem while on the road. Like you, I am really careful with my ‘phone and computer batteries. My Kindle battery too.

  13. I’m glad Moira mentioned Dial M. My contributions similarly are from the cinema (and TV) : they use phone records a lot on Law & Order to get clues and solve cases. Also I thought of the film Sorry, Wrong Number, which doesn’t involve phone records as I recall but definitely involves a phone!

    • Bryan – I’m glad Moira mentioned Dial M… too. It’s such a classic of suspense I think. And so is Sorry, Wrong Number. Really solid buildup of tension there in my opinion. And you’re right too that in shows such as Law & Order and other cop shows, they do rely on people’s ‘phone records. They’re a basic part of a person’s profile now.

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