One of the interesting effects of changing technology is arguably a generational divide. Quite often (certainly not always!) younger generations are comfortable with new technology, adapt to it easily and use it skillfully. Their parents and grandparents don’t always adapt as well (again this obviously isn’t always the case). In fact, some people call the newer generations ‘digital natives,’ and us not-so-new generations ‘digital immigrants.’ That’s not a bad description really.
We see this divide between using more traditional ways and using new ways woven all through crime fiction. That difference can lead to an interesting bit of tension in a plot, as well as a layer of character depth. And if the research is correct on who uses technology and how, it also reflects reality.
That difference has been around a long time, too. In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot is persuaded to look into a baffling series of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at a hostel for students. When hostel resident Celia Austin confesses to some of the thefts, it seems the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, apparently a successful suicide, everything changes. And when that death is proved to be murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe have a difficult case on their hands. At one point, Poirot has a conversation with hostel resident Colin McNabb about crime, punishment and detection. Here’s a tiny bit of it:
“You’ve given us an amusing talk tonight,” he said indulgently. ‘And I’ll not deny that you’re a man who’s had a varied and lengthy experience, but if you’ll excuse me for saying so, your methods and your ideas are both equally antiquated.’…
‘You take the narrow view of the Law – and what’s more of the Law at its most old fashioned. Nowadays, even the Law has to keep itself cognizant of the newest and most up to date theories of what causes crime. It is the causes that are important, Mr. Poirot.’
‘But there,’ cried Poirot, ‘to speak in your new fashioned phrase, I could not agree with you more!’…
Poirot said meekly, ‘My ideas are doubtless old fashioned, but I am perfectly prepared to listen to you, Mr. McNabb.’
Colin looked agreeably surprised.
‘That’s very fairly said, Mr. Poirot. Now I’ll try to make this matter clear to you, using very simple terms.’’
It’s interesting to see both the way in which McNabb condescends to Poirot, and the way Poirot reacts to it, knowing what crime fiction fans know about Poirot’s abilities.
In Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, there’s an interesting ‘digital divide.’ Diamond, who, as the title suggests, considers himself a true detective, relies on observation, evidence, witness/suspect reactions, and good old-fashioned detection. On the other hand, some of the members of Diamond’s team swear by computer-generated data, DNA and other modern forensic evidence and general data analysis. When the team investigates the murder of former TV star Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman, both traditional sleuthing skills and more modern digital data turn out to be important in solving the case.
There’s a small bit of this generational difference in technology use in Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti helps his assistant Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello with a family problem. Vianello’s aunt has lately fallen (so he thinks) prey to a horoscope scam (or perhaps more than one of them). Brunetti does know how to use computers, and is comfortable enough going online, but he’s still in many ways a ‘digital immigrant.’ He’s using the computer one day at lunchtime when he has a conversation with a younger team member about another use of the computer: online learning:
‘‘She’s [the instructor/facilitator] got a course we can take, ten lessons that we can take, my wife and me together.’
‘In Torino?’ [Brunetti]
‘Oh, no, sir,’ Riverre said with a gentle laugh. ‘We’re in the modern age now, me and my wife. We’re on line now, so all we have to do is sign up, and the class comes to our computer…’
Riverre’s information doesn’t solve the case, but it does show how the different generations sometimes think about learning.
Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus will know that he is neither stupid nor ignorant, so he knows that computers and modern technology can be very useful tools. But he is most definitely a ‘digital immigrant.’ He often relies on his assistant Sergeant Siobhan Clarke when computer expertise is required; she’s more comfortable and adept with modern technology than he is. Rankin doesn’t make this difference a ‘stock joke,’ but that difference comes through in various places in the series.
We also see some of those differences in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Television star Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford had been planning to leave the TV business and open up an antique store with her mother Iris. But those plans change completely when Iris calls to say she’s changed her mind. It turns out that Iris has taken the former carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall at Little Dipperton, Devon. Shocked at the news, Kat rushes to Devon, only to find the house in sad need of repair and her mother recovering from a broken hand. Among other things, Kat takes over as scribe for a project her mother’s been doing. Here’s a bit of their conversation about it:
‘‘How will I print out the pages?’ I said. ‘Is there somewhere in Dartmouth? A printing place I can use?’
‘I have no idea,’ Mum yawned. ‘Now you know why I don’t have a computer. With a typewriter, you just type, pull out the paper, and it’s done.’
There was little point in arguing.’
The difference in thinking fades to the background when the housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall goes missing, and is later found dead. Stanford takes an interest in the case both the protect herself and her mother from suspicion, and to answer some questions of her own.
To be fair, the generational divide isn’t always a yawning gulf. For instance, there’s Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, which takes place in the not-very-distant future (2019) and in a slightly altered reality. So as you can imagine, there’s some interesting technology available. In this story, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner Mike Baxter investigate two deaths of young women who were murdered by injections of phenol. Then, a third body is discovered. This time, the victim is Broadway star Vivian Jessup, who’s in town to work with a local theatre group. Now McCabe and Baxter have to determine whether the same person killed all three women, or whether there is more than one murderer at work. Throughout the novel, McCabe gets quite a lot of help from her father Angus, a retired journalist. He’s as adept as his daughter at using modern technology and has access to sources she doesn’t. So the information he provides is quite useful.
That said though, in many cases, there is often a generational difference in the way we think about and use technology. Have you noticed it? Do you use technology differently to the way your younger friends and loved ones do? If you’re a writer, does that divide play a role in your stories?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.