He Started Something With His First “Hello, Hello”*

TelephoneAs 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gene Kerrigan, Martin Edwards, Max Kinnings, Qiu Xiaolong

26 responses to “He Started Something With His First “Hello, Hello”*

  1. Your post on telephones made me think of when there were party lines and you could hear what your neighbor was talking about on the phone. I can’t image life without our phones now. I even take mine with me when I go for a walk.

    • I do the same thing, Mason! It is really hard to imagine what it might be like not to have that technology right there. And that’s from someone who remembers party lines, too! What’s most amazing to me is that we’ve gone through all of this technological development in just a few decades.

  2. I’m such a dinosaur when it comes to phones. We have a landline with Caller ID, so I hardly ever answer it. I have a cell phone but hardly anyone has the number except those who need it for emergencies. I wouldn’t have one at all but like being able to call for roadside help if I have a flat tire or other problem. My cell phone is an old style flip phone, totally stupid, just the way I like it. I had to do a lot of research when I wrote about cell phone tracking for Dead Wrong.

    • That’s the thing about technology, Pat. It changes all the time, so we do need to do research for novels to make sure that what we’re writing is accurate. You’re not the only one, either, who prefers landlines and doesn’t use a cell ‘phone except for emergencies. I’ve got several friends who prefer things that way. You’re probably spared your share of annoyance by not going for the ‘latest and greatest’ when it comes to telephone technology.

  3. I’m like Pat – I only have a mobile phone for car emergencies, and it’s pretty useless since I never remember to charge it. When I rule the world, mobile phones will be the first thing to go! Funnily enough, I was re-reading Asimov’s The Caves of Steel last week and having a little chuckle about the fact that he could imagine something as advanced as a positronic humanoid robot, but still had poor Lije Bailey popping out to a phone box in the middle of the night…

    • Haha! You’re right about that, FictionFan! You’re absolutely right about The Caves of Steel, and I’m glad you’ve brought that up. And although I use my telephone lots more than you do yours, I do understand your urge to do something about them. Certainly there are plenty of people who can be very annoying with them…

  4. Col

    I remember the days of the party line, I used to have to go around to the neighbours and make sure their phone was on the hook if my mum wanted to make a call. Sometimes the young boys there would have taken it off, but when the woman saw me knocking on the door, she would have put it back on and sworn blind to me that there was no problem.
    I just watched the first episode of THE NIGHT MANAGER airing on TV in the UK at the minute and one of the characters has just recovered some discarded SIM cards from some phones and passed them onto an agent for investigation.

    • Ah, yes, the party line! We had the same situation, Col, where we had to check no-one else was talking before we made a call. Sounds like you had your own adventures with that! I’ll bet that woman knee full well her kids had left the phone off the hook.

      I hope you’re enjoying Night Manager. That whole SIM card plot point is a great example of how far phone technology has come.

  5. Margot: On our party line were 6 households. There was no point worrying about someone listening in on your calls. My parents would never allow us to listen. Yet you knew there would always be a listener! As well, pretty much every party line in our rural area had one person who spent a lot of their time on the phone listening to other calls.

    • I know just what you mean, Bill! There was always someone who listened in on every telephone call possible! I’d imagine just about every party line included someone like that. And you’re right; with a party line, there’s no sense in worrying about whether your conversation would be private. It wouldn’t.

  6. We didn’t have a party line, but sometimes the wires got crossed and we could hear other people’s conversations (or maybe the secret police had made a mistake), so that was always amusing. And we only had the one landline when I was a teen, and it wasn’t even cordless. Because my mother wanted the phone to stay firmly in the hall, so she could pass by whenever I was on the phone and eavesdrop.

    • In the home I grew up in, Marina Sofia, the telephone was in the kitchen. And it wasn’t cordless, either. So yes, anyone passing by or doing anything in the kitchen could hear your conversation. It certainly did allow parents to know a lot of what was going on, no doubt about that. And I’ll bet it must have been interesting when you’d go to use the telephone and hear other people’s calls if the wires were crossed….

  7. Margot, I thought Eva Griffin’s character in “The Case of the Velvet Claw” was unconvincing, She lies almost throughout the book and even manages to fool Perry Mason, who goes along with her for the sake of his investigation. However, Della Street sees through her right from the start. In Lee Child’s “Killing Floor,” the telephone plays an important role in Jack Reacher’s investigation of his brother’s murder. Repeated calls made to the FBI and others, to source information, often result in false alarms frustrating both Reacher and the reader.

    • That’s quite true, Prashant. Only Della Street really sees the kind of person Eva Griffin is in The Case of the Velvet Claw right from the beginning. Certainly Eva herself says almost nothing that’s true. And thanks for mentioning The Killing Floor. You’re right about the role th at the telephone plays in that novel; thanks for filling in that gap.

  8. I think telephones can cause modern crime writers a good deal of grief. 🙂 It almost seems like a plot hole now if someone disappears or ends up in danger at a remote location…unless you can somehow break/lose/get rid of the cell phone.

    • That is most definitely a problem with modern telephones, Elizabeth! How do you arrange for a character to be all alone or in danger, and without that ever-present telephone? It’s not easy to do that realistically, is it?

  9. I’m again trying to regain my balance as my head is spinning; the range of your reading and recollection completely gob-smacks me! Now I have to say something about unpleasant about telephones: I wish cell-phones had never been invented. They are destroying too many people’s lives. Give me the good old days of party lines, phone booths, and operator assistance.How is that for putting the cat among the pigeon!

    • You’re not alone, Tim. Plenty of people have come to the conclusion that mobile ‘phones cause more problems than they solve. And I will grant you that if it weren’t for that invention, I would never have to listen to other people’s long, loud telephone conversations when I’m taking public transit…

  10. I am with Elizabeth on this! One of the joys of writing historical crime – even settings of 20 or 30 years ago – must be getting your characters into jeopardy without having to worry about mobile phones. It is such a problem for the modern crime writer.

  11. I have to mention that Hitchcock classic, Dial M for Murder. The phone plays a vital part in the plot – it’s a very complicated scheme, and between the phonecall and the matter of the front door key it’s not always easy to follow what people know, or what they’re thinking. Even though we know all along who is planning the crime…. you can always trust Hitchcock (and in this case you have to, people have been arguing for years about the plot points.)

    • A classic film, isn’t it, Moira? Now, I must admit to being quite partial to Hitchcock’s work, so I will say right now that I am biased. Still, even with that, it’s a fine film, I think. And it is a terrific example of the use of the telephone…

  12. Kathy D.

    Oh, party lines! 1950s Chicago. People listened in and yelled at our family members, especially the children. What fun: Not!
    Phones are definitely part of detectives’ work — to get information, track down witnesses, set up meetings, etc. Whether landlines or cell phones, they are an integral part of any murder investigation.
    But when a detective, especially a woman, goes off on a possibly dangerous mission — and loses or leaves at home her cell phone — or it’s broken, this does not bode well. It’s crucial for a detective to have a working cell phone to summon help if needed.
    I can’t even count the number of times V.I. Warshawski has had to use her cell phone during or after a crisis, even in the last book.

    • I can well imagine, Kathy, some very interesting party-line conversations! And no, I’m sure it wasn’t fun. You’ve got a well-taken point, too, that in modern crime novels, the detective really does have to have a working ‘phone, charged up, and so on. Otherwise it’s hard to make a story believable. It can be done, but it’s very difficult to make it credible.

  13. tracybham

    This post really does highlight how much things have changed in communication over the last decade or so. I like reading books written before the proliferation of the cell phone or set in earlier times.

    • There’s definitely something to reading (and writing) stories set in earlier times, Tracy. There’s a lot less in terms of the latest technology that one has to keep in mind. Things have, as you say, changed awfully quickly…

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