You 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 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.