Teach Your Parents Well*

DigitalNatives and ImmigrantsOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Frankie Y. Bailey, Hannah Dennison, Ian Rankin, Peter Lovesey

26 responses to “Teach Your Parents Well*

  1. Another very interesting topic. Certainly in TV crime series it’s become almost a cliche about the older chief inspector being unable to cope with technology, while the younger one buzzes around. It would be funny to see it turned on its head for once (although perhaps not very realistic!)

    • You know, that would be interesting, Marina Sofia! I’d love to see how it might be handled. As you say, it’d be difficult to do it realistically, but still… And thanks for the kind words.

  2. I remember how awkwardly TV police and crime shows dealt with mobile phones when they first became popular in the early-to-mid 1990s: they either excluded them altogether, or very deliberately “placed” them in scenes. I read an interview at the time with someone who said the entire way crime and crime-solving were depicted on screen had to be changed, because a lot of the old plot devices no longer worked, now that people had mobile phones. I also remember reading an interview back then with a crime writer, who said many authors in her genre were setting novels in the 1980s and before, so they didn’t have to deal with the “mobile phone problem”.

    • You’re right, Caron, now I come to think of it. Shows of that tay really didn’t handle mobile ‘phones very effectively. And I think a lot of people in real life weren’t quite sure exactly what to do with them, either. I think it took time before people really integrated mobile ‘phones into their lives and thought processes. So I can certainly see why crime writers didn’t want to deal with them. It was challenging. And I know some people even today who write historical series (set in the ’80s or early ’90s or before) for (in part) the same reason.

      • When I first got a mobile phone in 1994, it was seen as ostentatious to put it on the table at a restaurant, let alone to actually answer it. Now everyone sits at restaurant tables engrossed in the screen in front of them. Not that our phones had screens in those days, except a display of the number you were calling.

        • And people do seem so engrossed, Caron. In fact, I read a study that suggested that wait time in New York City restaurants was a lot longer than it used to b. When the researchers looked more closely at the data, they found that the reason had to do with people paying more attention to their ‘phones than to looking at the menu, ordering food and so on. And then more delays as they took ‘photos of the food and posted them. More delays again when the food arrived. And that’s not to mention the fact that food gets cold if you spend more time on the ‘phone than eating. Strange turn of cultural events…

        • Hah! I must read that article. One of my journalism students mentioned it to be last week, too.

        • I recommend it, Caron.

  3. Interesting that you should mention Donna Leon because that was what sprang to mind as soon as I saw the topic. I’ve just read her most recent one and was wondering if the Venice police really are as technologically backward as they appear. The secretary seems to be the only one who has a grip on the internet at all, and they were none of them quite sure how to go about getting CCTV footage.

    It was also a theme in Harlan Coben’s recent book ‘The Stranger’ – the main protagonist’s teenage sons were far more knowledgeable than he was himself. I reckon it must be really hard to write crime now that so much of the work is desk- and computer-based.

    • It is a challenge, FictionFan. You want, of course, to make an interesting story that people want to read. At the same time, modern crime detection isn’t at all what it was even fifteen years ago. And I think good crime fiction needs to reflect that.
      Thanks for mentioning the Coben, too. I must catch up with his work; I really must. It’s been a while. Ought to spotlight one of his novels, too, methinks. And about Leon? Great minds… 😉

  4. I am lucky to have my own IT expert at close hand – mu husband 🙂 and Fiction Fan is also quite knowledgeable and shares useful pointers:)
    I must say I have learnt a lot over the years since I started using this technology- and continue to learn…I think you have to – computer/laptops/phones etc are so quickly rendered/designed to be obsolete that you are always having to learn new programs etc. Maybe it will help to keep my brain young. 🙂 But the new technology must “date” book pretty easily.

    • You are lucky, Carol, that you have your very own ‘homegrown’ IT expert :-). And isn’t it nice to have ‘blogging buddies’ who are also knowledgeable and helpful? 🙂
      I think you’re quite right that when it comes to technology, you do need to keep learning and keep being open to new forms of technology and new ways to use it. Research suggests that continuing to learn new things does help to keep our brains functioning better, so I think you have a point there.
      I also think you have a point about ‘dating’ books. Too much reference to technology that’s too specific can have that effect on a book.

  5. Col

    There’s definitely a generational gap between me and my children and also me and my mum as far as technology goes

  6. Another excellent post and good to see you haven’t just concentrated on new advances but shown even Poirot had to get used to new theories about crime and its causes. In some ways older crime stories have more ambiguity about them as without the inevitable confession there wasn’t always proof as there tends to be today.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo. And you have a good point about getting proof. In some ways, it it lots easier to do that today, with modern technology. I think the profession of detecting crime and stopping it has really gone through a lot of changes as things such as CCTV cameras, DNA evidence and telephone records have been developed. And it’s all happened so quickly, too! It wasn’t that long ago, relatively speaking, that fingerprint matching science hadn’t even been developed yet.

  7. Margot: As you may remember I thought Poirot would adapt well were he detecting in the 21st Century as a master of communication.

    In Canada the rather dismissive phrase of the older generation’s technology challenges is techno peasant. I like to think I have moved on to the techno middle class. You are definitely one of the teckie aristocracy.

    • Thank you very much, Bill. I have to say, though, that I know plenty of people who are a lot more skilled at technology than I am; and I think you sell yourself short. Oh, and I like that terminology for the various levels of technological knowledge and skill.
      As for POirot, you make a very good point; I think, about his ability to communicate. He would probably be a real expert at that in today’s context.

  8. Wanted to say regarding that scene from Poirot’s attitude in that one instance in Hickory Dickory Death. He [and other learned detectives after him] had a way of luring his suspects in, like the cat waiting so patiently outside the mouse hole. Poirot always pounced at the end, i.e., OH YOU THOUGHT ME STUPID, ah… 🙂 No, he never said that, but I always loved those endings where he revealed his cleverness.

    I have a question — Have you seen that new television series – CIS: Cyber? If so, I was wondering what you thought of it? I haven’t seen enough of it, to have any sort of opinion.


    • I haven’t yet formed an opinion of CSI: Cyber either, ‘though I’ve seen a bit of it. And you’re right about Poirot. He can be very much like a cat as he goes for his quarry.

  9. I like the topic, but also like the sound of the Hannah Dennison book, which is new to me: Devon around Dartmouth is Agatha Christie territory in real life, and we holiday there regularly, so that’s a book for me…

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