As I post this, today would have been Alexander Graham Bell’s 169th birthday. It’s not really an overstatement to say that the telephone, the invention with which he’s most closely associated, created a communications revolution. Today, we take for granted the ability to reach into a pocket or handbag, get our telephones, and call anyone we want. Modern telephones do even more. You can make hotel reservations, buy airline tickets, check into your flight, rent a car, and get a cab to the airport within a few moments, all with a telephone.
Telephones are crucial for police investigations, too, and they have been since long before you could take ‘photos with them. There was a time when houses had one telephone, with possibly an extension in another room. That meant few conversations were as private as one might have hoped.
That lack of privacy figures into Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). When family patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, the rest of his family gathers for his funeral and the reading of his will. At that gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone discounts the idea, and she herself tells the group not to pay any attention to her. But secretly, everyone begins to wonder. Any doubts are put to rest when Cora herself is killed the next day. Family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. At one point, one character remembers something that turns out to be an important clue. That character makes a telephone call to report that memory, but unfortunately, the wrong person overhears…
In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claw, Perry Mason gets a new client who calls herself Eva Griffin. She tells him she’s being blackmailed by tabloid reporter Frank Locke, who threatens to publish her relationship with up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke in Spicy Bits unless she pays him well. Being married to someone else, she knows this might ruin her lover’s career, and will certainly ruin her own reputation. Mason agrees to take the case, and begins to communicate with Locke. He soon concludes that there’s more to this story than it seems. So he follows Locke to a nearby hotel, where he arranges with the hotel’s switchboard operator to trace a call that Locke makes. That information gives Mason the lead he needs to find out who’s set his client up for blackmail and why. At first it seems that this might be the end of the case. But that turns out not to be so, when Eva’s husband is shot and she becomes the prime suspect. Now Mason has to defend his client, even though he’s discovered that not much of what she says is the truth.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine takes place in 1990’s Shanghai, where many people use public telephones. When the body of national model worker Guang Hongying is discovered in a nearby canal, Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant, Sergeant Yu Guangming are assigned to investigate. It’s a very delicate matter, because the victim was a sort of national role model – a celebrity in her own way. It takes time and patience, but the two detectives do rack down the killer. And part of the way they do that is by tracing a call that links the victim to the murderer.
Today, of course, many, many people have their own telephones. Those can be treasure troves of information, since lots of people store contact numbers, addresses, photographs, and lots more in their telephones. So those who don’t want to have their calls traced often use pay-as-you-go telephones. That’s what happens in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. In one plot thread of that novel, DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Chyney investigate the execution-style murder of dubious Dublin banker Emmet Sweetman. His killers are not exactly legitimate business contacts, so they did business with Sweetman through a pay-as-you-go ‘phone. Tidey and Cheney are lucky enough to find that telephone, and are able to link the killers to their victim. Incidentally, in another plot thread of the same novel, Vincent Naylor, his brother Noel, and some friends plot the robbery of a van belonging to Protectica, a company that transports cash among banks and firms. They pull off the heist by holding the driver’s wife hostage and sending pictures that prove she’s in danger.
They aren’t the only criminals who use telephones in that way, either. In Max Kinnings’ Baptism, three hostage-takers break into the home of London Underground train driver George Wakeham. They take his wife and children hostage, and order him to do as they tell him. He’s to go to his job as usual, and follow every instruction he is given by the hostage-takers. They then give him a special mobile ‘phone that he’s to keep with him at all times. With no other option, Wakeham does as he’s told, goes to his job, and takes his seat in the driver’s cab of his train. The hostage-takers board it shortly afterwards. And it’s not long before Wakeham understands that these people want to capture the entire train, with all 400-plus passengers. Hostage negotiator DCI Ed Mallory is assigned to try to find out what the hostage-takers want, so he has to establish communication with them, too. By telephone.
There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way police use telephones to get information about victims, suspects and more. And it’s not hard to see why. People do leave a lot of information on their telephones, sometimes more than is judicious. Just ask Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett. In The Serpent Pool, she and her Cold Case Review Team re-open the six-year-old murder of Bethany Friend. It turns out that that killing is tied to two more recent deaths. Oxford historian Daniel Kind is working on some research about Thomas de Quincey, and it turns out that his work is very useful to the cases Scarlett is investigating. One day, she goes out, forgetting her mobile ‘phone at home. When her partner, book dealer Marc Amos finds the telephone, he can’t resist the urge to check her messages. He’s been feeling unsettled about their relationship, and his worst fears seem to be coming true when he sees a text from Kind. That incident doesn’t solve the case, but it plays its role. And it shows just how much information a person can get from a telephone.
Telephones may drive us to the brink sometimes. What with robo-calls, people who have loud, public conversations, and so on, they can seem to do more harm than good. And modern telephones make it harder than ever to actually get away for a break. But where would we be without them?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sweet’s Alexander Graham Bell.