Just Put the Phone Down*

Mobile VulnerabilityLook around you for a moment. My guess is that there’s a good chance that you’re only a few feet (at most) away from…your telephone. Of course, today’s telephones do a whole lot more than just let people make calls wherever they are. For instance, mine lets me keep up with the blogs I read, make comments, engage with my online students, take photographs, read the news, do Internet research, and get just about wherever I want to go without getting lost. And mine isn’t a particularly upmarket model.

A lot of people will say they’ve come to really depend on their telephones. But just as many people think of them as, at best, mixed blessings. For one thing, telephones can be awfully intrusive. When colleagues and others can reach you at any time, they frequently do just that. And it can be very difficult to avoid (or break) the habit of checking email or texting instead of being more tuned in to wherever you are.

Telephones can make a person vulnerable, too. Just think of all the private information that may be on yours. There are other ways as well in which telephones can be used against a person. And that’s just why they can also be interesting parts of crime novels.

In Stefan Tegenfalk’s Project Nirvana, for example, Stockholm County police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge get involved in an international investigation when the German police seek Sweden’s help in solving the murders of four German scientists. There’s reason to believe that Swedish national Leo Brageler is the killer, but there seems no motive. The German authorities are hoping that the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation can help them link Brageler to the scientists. There are other possibilities as to the killer, though, and Gröhn and his team want to explore those too. At one point in the novel, de Brugge has followed a lead to one particular possible suspect, and finds out almost too late that her telephone has made her vulnerable. I can’t say more than that without giving away too much, but I can say that it’s not one of those ‘didn’t bring telephone with me and am all alone’ sort of situations.

In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace is working on the strange murder case of a man whose torso was found in an abandoned chicken coop. He’s also been assigned to help protect international superstar Gaia Lafayette during her upcoming stay in Brighton, where she’s making a film. Along with everything else, he’s concerned that someone in his department might be leaking details of some of the team’s investigations. So, he’s advised to have the High Tech team look at his Blackberry to see if someone’s gotten access to some of the information there. That plot thread shows how someone might hack a mobile device. It also shows how vulnerable privileged information can be.

Another police investigation is compromised in Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. In that novel, SP (Special Police) officer Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department (MPD) gets a very difficult assignment. He is told to take a team to Fukuoka and escort a prisoner back to Tokyo. But this is no ordinary prisoner. This is Kunihide Kiyomaru, who is responsible for raping and killing the granddaughter of wealthy business magnate Takaoki Ninagawa. And Ninagawa has taken the unusual step of offering a very public billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru. Mekari and his team go to Fukuoka, collect their prisoner, and begin the journey back to Tokyo. But they soon run into trouble. Wherever they go, it seems that news of their presence gets there first, and they have to contend with crowds of people, many of whom are eager to claim the reward money. Despite spur-of-the-moment changes of plans, they don’t seem to be able to break free of the many people who are trying to kill Kiyomaru. Someone keeps publishing detailed live GPS information about their whereabouts. It’s a scary reminder of how easy it can be to get that sort of data and misuse it.

In Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? we are introduced to new mum Yvonne Mulhern. She’s recently moved from London to Dublin with her husband, Gerry, so that he can take advantage of a good career opportunity. Yvonne loves her husband, but he’s gone much of the time, and she’s overwhelmed by the demands a new baby makes. In need of support and company, she turns to an online forum called Netmammy, a group of other new mothers. Yvonne finds great solace in the online group. There’s even a very telling scene in which she’s at a real-life party with her husband, but uses her ‘phone to access the site. And she’s not the only member who’s that drawn to the group. Then, one of the members seems to disappear, and Yvonne gets concerned. Then, the body of a woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Sgt. Claire Boyle and her team investigate, and try to trace the victim’s last days and weeks. The woman’s profile (age and so on) is very similar to Yvonne Mulhern’s missing online friend. Is it the same woman? And if so, what might this mean for the other members of Netmammy? This novel points out, among other things, just how much information we reveal online without always knowing it. And it shows how much a person can find out by picking up a telephone.  

There’s also Max Kinnings’ Baptism, in which criminals make use of a mobile ‘phone. London Underground driver George Wakeman is getting ready for work one morning when his home is invaded by three hostage-takers. They take his wife and children prisoner, and give him a mobile ‘phone. Then they tell him to go to his job and follow every instruction he is given. With no other choice, Wakeman does as the hostage-takers say, and drives to his job. Using the number of the telephone they’ve given him, the criminals direct Wakeman to begin his route as normal, so he gets into the cab of his train and starts the route. The hostage-takers board the train, too, and it pulls out from the station. After a time, Wakeman is ordered to stop in a tunnel. Soon enough, Wakeman learns why he has been targeted. The team wants to take his entire train (with about 400 passengers) hostage. DCI Ed Mallory, an experienced negotiator, is assigned to the case to see if he can find out what these people want and whether he can free the passengers before it’s too late.

See what I mean? Of course today’s telephones are incredibly useful. But sometimes, they’re more dangerous than you know. Oh, wait! Excuse me, please, I just got an email and I really need to check it…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buzzcocks’ Phone.


Filed under Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Max Kinnings, Peter James, Sinéad Crowley, Stefan Tegenfalk

34 responses to “Just Put the Phone Down*

  1. In fact I’ve read your post thanks to my phone, Margot.

  2. Pingback: Just Put the Phone Down* | picardykatt's Blog

  3. I’m proud to say I don’t have one! The curse of the modern world – when I become Universal Dictator they shall be banned! Of course, if I have a breakdown on the motorway I may have to borrow one… 😉

    And in the spirit of ‘Just Say No to Mobile Phones’ my example will be Val McDermid’s updated version of Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, where McDermid sited her abbey in a reception blackspot to achieve the true isolated Gothic atmosphere – hah! Take that, you tech junkies!

    • Take that, indeed, FictionFan! That’s a great example, too, of how a modern novel can be written so ‘phones just simply can’t be used. It’s a logical possibility and it adds to the plot.

      As to your plans as Universal Dictator, I understand your desire to ban all of those mobile devices. As you say, though, they do have their uses. And parents of small children really need them in case of emergency. Still, people who have long, loud, public conversations on them, or who blunder into others because they’re texting, or….. do make me wonder about them.

  4. Oh Margot what great timing – when I smashed my phone earlier this week it made me realise quite how often I pick it up and I would say I’m fairly restrained whenever I’m in the company of other people. It did mean I couldn’t catch up on reading blogs when my computer was loading or I had a break at work which was extremely frustrating! I also like your examples that plot line about Can Anyone Help Me was definitely a tale of our time!

    • Oh, I think it was, too, Cleo! It’s really quite a credible premise on that score, isn’t it? And you know, we do really feel the loss of our phones when we don’t have them. I dropped mine once in water, and felt quite out of sorts until I got a new one. And a few times I’ve started out in the morning without my phone. Makes me feel quite vulnerable when I leave very early in the morning, for instance.

  5. I’ve never been a big fan of the telephone, though I have both a landline and cell phone out of necessity. Amazing how many ways they can trip us up.
    I used phone tower triangulation as a means of finding kidnap victims in The Limping Dog.

    • Oh, that’s a really effective use of phone technology, John! Very clever and creative. Funny, too, that you would mention a landline. most of the people I know don’t have one any more. I wonder what hotel companies do to recoup the loss of all of those in-room telephone charges when people simply don’t use the phone very much any more.

  6. Margot, your post reminds me that you rarely read (or see) a scene where someone is on a lonely strip of highway where they’re not at least trying to use their cellphone even though there may be no service in the area. Remember the days without phones how isolated people were when their cars broke down on a lonely highway? You never thought about calling someone, you had to walk for help or hope a car came by. I know I’d be lost without my phone and it’s old by most standards.

    • I remember those days very well, Mason. They were scary, weren’t they? You could easily find yourself completely stranded, and as you said, with no option but to walk or hope someone would come by. That’s one way in which phones have really made our lives safer. If there’s reception, you can call for help. And you’re right; rare is the scene in a book or film when someone is stranded without at least trying to make a call. Times have really changed.

  7. I read somewhere that the advent of the smart phone has changed the way crime fiction set in the present has to be written…thus it has also led to a boom in crime stories set in the past.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Caron. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s absolutely the truth. Contemporary stories really do have to be written differently because of smart phones. So it’s not at all surprising that there are people who choose to set their novels in the past.

  8. I’m not a big fan of the cell phone, but I needed it for work and when I recently retired, I continues to use it as I’d cancelled my land line. I’m like you, it’s so easy to check emails rather than pull out the old laptop. I also find I use it a lot to search for information (usually when I’m watching TV and a question pops into my mind).

    • I do that, too, at times, Judy. I don’t write blog posts on it as a rule. But yes, checking email and looking up information are so much easier with today’s phones than it was. As problematic as they are, I think I’m overall glad I have my phone.

  9. Col

    Not read any of your examples, but the Kinnings’ book looks interesting. I like reading from pre-mobile days. Was it the Dirty Harry film where the killer had him running from phone box to phone box? He could have benefited from a mobile!

  10. You know, Margot, the day I stay away from my gadgets, the internet and social media, I read more and write more. I check my phone after every few lines. There is no escape!

    • That’s the thing about those devices, Prashant, isn’t it? They do take away our time from other things. And it takes less than a moment to just check messages, so it seems innocuous enough. But it does draw one away from one’s writing, or whatever else one does.

  11. My friends always laugh at me that I still use my mobile primarily for phone calls and texting, and am not always available even then (I switch it off in the evening, shock horror!).
    Of course there were phone-related crimes even in the pre-mobile days, although it does make you wonder how things might have worked out if they had been set in the present-day. Dial M for Murder is one of my favourite film examples. Can you imagine if Grace Kelly had been out and about on the street or train while answering the phone?

    • You know, Marina Sofia, I turn my phone off, too, in the evening. Inconceivable, isn’t it? And you’ve got a good point about Dial M For Murder (recommended, folks, if you’ve not seen it). That would be a completely different film if the phone rang in a train or tram. It just works better the other way, in my opinion.

  12. I have a phone in my pocket, even as I talk. 🙂

    The main problem with cell phones is that they mess up mystery writing sometimes. It’s harder to believe a character could be isolated and in danger, etc. It means that we have to have the phone battery dead or have the phone be out of network somehow.

    • Exactly, Elizabeth! Writers really do have to be careful about that sort of thing. There aren’t that many believable reasons for which someone wouldn’t have access to a phone any more. And I’ve got my phone on me, too… 🙂

  13. A great relief when a novel is set pre-cellphones. Writers jlean on this technology so must–as do we.

  14. When I write, I must remember that I’m a stupid phone user so I must be aware of my characters who might have smart phones and know all about the associated bells and whistles. I prefer not to be constantly in touch with the world, and I have a hard time understanding those who do. How does one ever get a moment’s peace? It’s making the idea of writing historical novels more attractive.

    • That’s a good question, Pat. I don’t blame you for wanting to keep your distance from the world, at least sometimes. You’ve got a good point, too, that writers need to remember that not everyone sees the world the same way. Sometimes we write about people who don’t do things the way we would, and it’s important to make that realistic.

  15. kathyd

    I am liberated, have no phone, smart or otherwise. I have one landline in two rooms so i don’t have to race to answer the phone.
    But i have a question: If smart phones are so smart, why can’t they make your coffee, make breakfast and walk the dogs?

    • I’d love it if phones could do that, too, Kathy. And you’ve got a point about feeling liberated. There are plenty of people who share your sense that smart phones are as much a tether as they are anything else.

  16. I’m a defender of mobile/smart phones: they help us communicate, and are great for keeping in touch with your children, and they also help with safety issues. But they can have their sinister side – Elly Griffiths has used them to great effect in her Ruth Galloway books, with anonymous texts appearing saying ‘I know where you are’ and similar. There is a splendid scene in one of the books where Harry perceives a threat to his teenage daughters in a horrible text. There is a very tense section where he tries to establish where they are and keep them safe – which tips into farce when he finds one girl up to who-knows-what with a boyfriend…

    • No doubt about it, Moira, mobile phones do have their strong advantages. Honestly, for safety and family reasons, if nothing else, I wouldn’t want to be without mine. But as you say, they can be used for very nefarious purposes. I’m glad you mentioned the way Griffiths uses them; I think it’s quite skilled and should’ve mentioned it here. And, in fact, your comment makes me think of a C.J. Box novel in which his protagonist, Joe Pickett, has to deal with some strange texts to his daughter, that seem to come from someone who’s died. Creeeeepy

  17. kathyd

    I am for cell phones for families, so the children can reach parents and vice versa. But all of the things children can access on smart phones or their spending a lot of time texting and not reading or playing outside or enjoying or music or sports.
    But I do think smart phones were just made for crime fiction writers. As has been said, sinister texts are definitely a good plot device. Locating someone is good and bad, but another good plot device, although it could be an invasion of privacy if misused, as does happen in the real world as perpetrators locate children, for example, through various apps and social media sites.
    I was with a friend when she had just gotten a smart phone (emphasis on smart). She asked it verbally who were the Supreme Court justices. And then it flashed a website with the answer. That impresses this Luddite.

    • Oh, it’s true, Kathy. Smart phones have all sorts of capabilities, and it’s really easy to find out information – from directions to history facts to your bank balance – on them. On that score, they are impressive. You’re right, too, that they can be a very effective tool for the crime writer.

  18. tracybham

    I use my cell phone hardly at all and only use it when it is needed. And I care very little for the use of such technology in mysteries, while I understand that authors of mysteries set in this time cannot ignore technology. I work in Information Technology (data base programming) yet still don’t buy in to a lot of personal use of technology. I do use tablets, but not a lot. Anyway, an interesting topic.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And I think everyone’s different about attitudes towards technology. Some people love it; other people can take it or leave it (mostly leave it). As you say, though, it’s part of our modern world, so the crime writer can’t really ignore it.

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