And He Recorded It On a Reel Of Tape*

Recording DevicesDo you listen to audio books? Many people do, and there is a long and growing list of publishers that offer audio books to those who want to experience a story that way. And it’s easy to see why. Audio books and podcasts are convenient ways to enjoy a novel, a short story, or even an author interview. You can listen during your commute, as you’re doing the dishes or the laundry, or as you’re being walked by your dog. What’s more, you can hear names and places (and sometimes idioms) pronounced authentically. That can be quite a boon if you’re not familiar with the language of a novel’s setting.

If you enjoy the audio experience, you owe a great deal to Thomas Edison. On this day (as I post this) in 1877, he invented the first sound recording device, which he called the Edisonphone. There you go, nerd fact of the day.   😉

For many years, people thought of sound recording devices as mostly having the purpose of playing back music. But sound recording technology has had a much wider impact. And that includes its impact on crime fiction.

As I mentioned, the most obvious influence is that crime stories are now available in audio form. In fact, you can now download audio versions of books, and listen in digital format. Among other things, the audio option has meant that now, books are available to people with vision loss, without the need for translating into braille.

If you think about it, though, sound recording has also had a powerful impact on what happens in a crime novel. For example, there’s an Agatha Christie novel where a sound recording device has a very important role to play. I won’t mention the title, as I don’t want to give away spoilers. But if you’re familiar with her novels, you’ll know which one I mean.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring makes very interesting use of a recording. In one plot thread of the novel, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is concerned about one of her students, Kellee Savage. Kellee is emotionally very fragile as it is. And lately, she’s been making accusations against another student. Then, she disappears. Kilbourn learns that she was last seen at a bar where several students had gathered. Without their knowledge, Kellee made a recording of what they said, and what one student says is not exactly flattering to Kilbourn. The recording doesn’t solve the mystery of what happened to Kellee, but it offers a very interesting perspective on the way some students think.

Ian Rankin’s Exit Music introduces readers to Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet now living in Edinburgh. When his body is discovered on King’s Stables Road, the first assumption is that he was the victim of a mugging gone very wrong. But Inspector John Rebus isn’t entirely convinced of that. There were several people, among them some wealthy Russian businessmen, who wanted Todorov dead – one had even made public mention of it. Then there’s another murder. Recording engineer Charles Riordan is killed, and his studio goes up in flames. There could be a connection between the two deaths, too, since Todorov had made a recording there before his own murder. Matters are only made murkier when Rebus learns that his old nemesis, Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty may be mixed up in the whole business…

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, which begins in 1974, an unnamed art restorer is visiting a Swiss monastery. There, he meets an old man who lives in the care home attached to the monastery. His new acquaintance offers to tell him a story – a good story – in exchange for a recording of it. The art restorer agrees, and gets some audio tapes. He then records the old man’s story, which concerns the family of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco. This family emigrated from Italy to New York at the turn of the 20th Century, so on one level, it’s the tale of an Italian-American family. But on another level, it’s a crime story. Franco got into a bar fight one night, and killed a man named Luigi Lupo. Unbeknownst to Franco, Lupo was the son of a notorious Mafia boss, Tonio Lupo. As revenge for the death of his son, Lupo put a curse on the family, promising that each of Franco’s three sons would die at the age of forty-two. So the old man’s story also includes the murder, the curse, and what happened to the family afterwards. And in the end, the recording that the art restorer makes is a very important part of this novel.

There’s a more sinister use of the recording device, too, in crime fiction. One of the main characters in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark is Ilse Klein. As a child, she moved with her parents from Leipzig, in what was then East Germany, to New Zealand’s South Island. They moved to escape the dreaded Stasi – the secret police. As the story goes on, we learn that one strategy the police used to keep people cowed was to encourage listening in on others’ conversations. And that included placing ‘bugs,’ and drilling small holes so that people living in one apartment could make use of a recording device to hear the people next door. Ilse and her mother, Greta, are happy enough in New Zealand, although Ilse feels more strongly attached to Germany than her mother does. Everything changes for them when one of Ilse’s students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, starts skipping class and losing interest in learning. Then, she disappears altogether. The Klein women’s responses to this have real consequences for everyone involved.

If you read police procedurals, or if you’re familiar with the way police work, you’ll know that interviews with suspects are typically recorded. Today, they’re video-recorded, but before that technology was available, they were audio-recorded. And there are many, many examples in crime fiction of the police interview, during which the recorder is switched on and the suspect tells her or his story. It’s a staple of the genre, and it’s another way in which audio recording has changed the crime novel.

Anyone who reads espionage fiction or thrillers can tell you that recording devices – ‘bugs’ – play a really important role in that sub-genre. There are many examples of operatives who ‘take a walk together’ to speak freely. We also see that use of recording devices when police go undercover, or when they use informers.

See what I mean? Mr. Edison’s little invention had much more far-reaching effects than he probably imagined they would. Where would crime fiction be without it?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ Stool Pigeon.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Paddy Richardson

20 responses to “And He Recorded It On a Reel Of Tape*

  1. A.M. Pietroschek

    Having been a passionate pen & paper fantasy roleplayer I still do minor mind-games to imagine aka visualize characters and antagonists, situations, and atmospheres. Sadly my writing skill is not yet polished enough to make readers enjoy it (or turn them into paying customers, accursed pirates).


    • Paper and pencil are powerful tools, Andrè. I also think telling stories and recording them can be an effective way to get readers to imagine characters.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        I see another benefit in a kind of ‘brainstorming or field testing’. Lets say we take a classic Dungeons & Dragons, but instead of Fantasy or Cthulhu Myth we settle it at Tilton University and play a group of students (YA) or academics, who stumble into a murder mystery…

        Such would allow a group of well-chosen roleplayers (who could all be authors of crime fiction, to give an example) to test, and enrich, an idea or story into optimum details…

        While not mandatory it can be a helpful way to combine recreation with some solution for real world duties. 😉

        And you noted that on my second day of fumbling the wallpapers. The other craftsmen said there is no way of botching that, but I could teach them I found plenty of ways to botch it all… LOL

  2. Jill McGown wrote wonderful books, and one very unusual one is Plots and Errors. It’s one of the most complex books/plots I have ever read. And one of the many strands deals with recording /surveillance equipment – was it on? Did anything record? Might something have happened to the recording equipment…? Might there be a last-minute plot twist…. It’s a great book!

  3. Goodness, you have me scratching my head tonight! I remember quite clearly a story that involved stenographer rolls, which dates it, but simply can’t bring the book to mind. I suspect it was a Nero Wolfe. Haha! I recommend it anyway! 😉

    • 😆 Well, if you do think of more details, FictionFan, or whether it was a Wolfe story, do let me know. I’m intrigued!

      • I suspect the Nero Wolfe book you and FictionFan have in mind is The Silent Speaker, where a missing stenographer’s tape holds the secret of the murder of a major government official. It includes such additional features as Inspector Cramer’s banishment to a remote office and Nero Wolfe’s staging an impressive (if entirely phony) nervous breakdown.

  4. Col

    I do like “bugs in books” – the last book I read had some politicians getting recorded while they discussed some dodgy deals.

    • And that’s the sort of plot where ‘bugs’ can be really effective, Col. They can be a good way to let the reader (and the protagonist) know what’s really going on.

  5. I’ve tried listening to audiobooks, but I have a busy brain and my mind tends to wander. At least with a print book I can easily flip back a page or two.

    Recordings can be open or hidden from folks…and those microphones that can amplify and record from a distance can be handy for law enforcement trying to find and arrest the bad guys. So many opportunities to use such tools in crime fiction!

    • Oh, I agree completely, Pat! There are any number of opportunities for the crime writer, aren’t there? And you make an interesting point about the way law enforcement people can use them to catch the ‘bad guys.’ It all can add to a plot.

      You’re by no means the only one who prefers print books, so that you can refresh your memory if you want to, or go back if you feel yourself drifting. It’s a little trickier to do that with an audio book. It’s not exactly like listening to a person really tell a story, where you could say, ‘Excuse me, what did you just say?’

  6. kathyd

    I can only recall John Grisham’s The Firm, where the protagonist, a lawyer working for mobsters, has to “take a walk” with his spouse to fill her in about their house being wired and all communications between them recorded.
    Nowadays, it seems like every TV police procedural shows an investigator putting a tape recorder in front of a suspect and saying that what the person says is being recorded.

    • You’re quite right about The Firm, Kathy. Thanks for filling in that blank. And you have a good point about today’s police shows on TV. There’s a lot of emphasis on witnesses and getting them to talk (and recording them).

  7. Once again I’ve been beaten to it with my example; I was also thinking of Plots and Errors which is a great example of surveillance in a police procedural. I didn’t know the fact of the day either so thank you for that Margot.

  8. tracybham

    My immediate thought was that several Nero Wolfe novels (or novellas) involve taping evidence. There are other examples than the one mentioned above but unfortunately I cannot remember specific titles. One was about a recording device hidden at a table at a restaurant. Another involved a group of private detectives pulled in for illegal use of wire tapping. That one was the novella “Too Many Detectives”.

    • Right you are, Tracy. I’d forgotten just how many Nero Wolfe stories have that plot point. And Too Many Detectives is a good example, so thanks for filling in the gap.

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