I Wanna Be Online, Be Online*

Not very long ago, I was joking around with my granddaughter. At one point, she wanted to stop the goofiness so that she could tell me something she really wanted me to know. Her way of letting me know that was to say, ‘Pause game! Pause game!’ Among other things, it was a real reminder to me that the generations often do communicate very differently. And just that one comment is also, at least to me, an example of how much the digital age has impacted the way people communicate, especially young people.

If you’re around young people, you probably already know that. And it’s interesting to see how that sort of communication has crept into contemporary crime fiction. Arguably, there’s always been a difference between the way the generations communicate, but technology has certainly affected that gap.

In Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room, for instance, we are introduced to Laurie and Martha, who’ve been married for some time, and are the proud parents of three teenage children. Life isn’t perfect (what life ever is?), but it’s a loving, caring family. And for Laurie, it’s therapaeutic. She grew up in a cult in the American desert, and didn’t permanently leave the group until she was a young adult. It’s been a difficult adjustment for her, but she’s done well. Everything changes when she and Martha begin to be concerned about their oldest daughter, Hope. She’s not eating or sleeping properly, and she’s become obsessed with dancing, to the point where it’s no longer healthy. Hope isn’t interested in listening to her parents’ good advice, though. As if that weren’t enough, a person from Laurie’s past has found her, and could very well rip the family apart. Now, Laurie will have to find a way to protect her family without revealing too much of her past. In the novel, we see the differences between the way Martha and Laurie communicate with each other and others, and the way that Hope does. And that change – the use of technology to reach out – plays a role in what happens.

Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice is the story of Auckland police detective Matt Buchanan. He’s seen some of the worst that people can do to each other, and it’s had a real impact on him. He’s got some symptoms of PTSD, and he works hard to keep himself in focus and doing his job. The one case that keeps him ‘on the job’ is the 1999 disappearance of Samantha Coates. She went missing one day while she was walking home from school, and has never been found. Not even a body has turned up. Every chance he has, Buchanan tries to follow up on the case, but so far, there’s been very little. Then, a few leads do start to surface. And it turns out that this case, and some other cases he’s working, could be much bigger and involved than he thought. Through it all, Buchanan stays human, if I can put it that way, through his relationship with his daughter, Hailey. He’s been raising her on his own since his wife died of cancer, and the two have a loving relationship. And it’s interesting to see how he reaches out to communicate with her in the way that she finds most comfortable. They text frequently, and he’s even learned some of the acronyms and other characteristics of today’s technologically-based communication. It’s part of what keeps them in contact.

Charity Norman’s See You in September begins as Cassy Howells plans a trip to New Zealand with her boyfriend, Hamish. They’ve just finished university, and want to have a chance to explore the world a little before settling down to adult responsibilities. The trip begins well enough, but it’s not long before there’s some tension between the two. Then, Cassy discovers to her shock that she’s pregnant. Hamish wants no part of being a father, so Cassy is left in a foreign country, alone and expecting a baby. She’s taken in by a group of people who live in an eco-friendly, completely sustainable commune. At first, it’s agreed that she’ll stay just until she gets on her feet and makes some decisions. But, as time goes by, she’s more and more drawn in to the cult’s lifestyle. Eventually, she chooses to join the group permanently. Meanwhile, Cassy’s parents, Diana and Mike, are very worried about her because she hasn’t been in contact with them. Her younger sister, Tara, is worried, too, and increasingly angry at the hurt Cassy is causing her family. Both Diana and Mike make trips from the UK, where they live, to New Zealand, to try to get Cassy to come home with them. The question is, though, whether they will succeed before what the cult leader has called the Last Day. If not, it could spell disaster. In this novel, it’s interesting to see the differences between the way Cassy’s parents try to reach her, and the way Tara does. Diana and Mike do send email, but they also make personal visits. Tara, on the other hand, uses Facebook and other online communication.

The main focus of Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw is a train trip that Tokyo police detective Kazuki Mekari makes from Fukuoka to Tokyo. This is no ordinary journey, though. He and his team have been sent to Fuuoka to bring back a prisoner named Kunihide Kiyomaru, who is responsible for raping and murdering the granddaughter of wealthy business magnate Takaoki Ninagawa. Devastated by this loss, Ninagawa has placed a very public one-billion-yen bounty on Kiyomaru’s head. He’s even arranged to have a website built that explains the matter. Ads are placed in newspapers, too. As you can imagine, it’s a very tempting offer, and many people want their chance at the money. So, Mekari and his team will have to work quickly and carefully if they’re to bring their prisoner back alive. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how people, especially younger people, use technology such as GPS mapping and other apps to try to locate the team. It’s not that the older characters use no technology – they do. But the difference between generations is there.

Many young people have developed relationships that are completely online. For instance, one of the central plot points in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a support group for new mums, and Yvonne Mulhern is grateful for the group’s camaraderie and advice when she finds out about it. She and her husband, Gerry, have recently moved from London to Dublin, and she hasn’t made a lot of ‘real life’ friends. It doesn’t help that, with Gerry busy with his new job, she’s the one who does most of the care for their infant daughter. When one of the group’s members goes ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne is just as concerned as she would be if she had met the woman personally. But the police can’t do much at first. Then, the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. If it’s the same person, this has all sorts of implications for Netmammy…

Modern technology has really changed the way people communicate. And, if you look at the way young people do so, you see that those advances have a powerful impact. That can make for real generational differences.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Houndmouth’s Modern Love.


Filed under Charity Norman, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Nathan Blackell, Sinéad Crowley, Stella Duffy

17 responses to “I Wanna Be Online, Be Online*

  1. As always, a great post and insights! I’m not around children much anymore, so your granddaughter’s “pause game” comment floored me. I wonder if you’ve seen the movie “Searching”? My hubby wasn’t crazy about it, but I thought it was really a neat way to tell the story — completely through technology (social media sites, home security cameras, etc.). I love seeing writers (and filmmakers) adapting new approaches, and this movie managed to do that.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Ellen. I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. I was surprised by what my granddaughter said, too, and I’m around her a lot. It was such a clear example of generational differences. I haven’t seen Searching, although I’ve heard of it. That is a really interesting way to tell a story. It’s interesting, too, to see how different directors and writers choose to tell their stories in innovative ways. That can be very effective.

  2. Terrific post, Margot. Of course, the dark side of the new communications technology also provides rich fodder for crime writers. In this vein, I recommend RISK by Australian author Fleur Ferris. Fleur is an ex-cop and the book is based on a real life case. As the mother of a 13 year old, I found it terrifying. I gave it to Ms Thirteen to read as an object lesson on the dangers of social media 😉

    • Thanks, Angela. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right, too, about the dark side of modern communication. It really is frightening. Thanks for suggesting Risk; it sounds like a potent story on an important topic. And I do like the credibility that an ex-cop can give a book. Wise of you to work with Ms. Thirteen about this one. I remember having similar sorts of conversations with my own daughter when she was that age. We were lucky (and she is smart), but it’s always important to talk about these things, I think.

  3. Marina Sofia

    Lots of tempting new authors for me to try, Margot… Another example I’d like to add is Ursula Poznanski’s Blind Birds, where a Facebook poetry forum turns quite deadly.

  4. Col

    I like the sound of the Nathan Blackwell book, Margot. Heavy sigh….

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist Blog on how the digital age has been portrayed in crime fiction.

  6. Great post. In my Frank Rozzani detective series, Frank’s Partner is an expert computer hacker that brings this element to the books. Frank is purposely a bit challenged when it comes to technology. This allows me to have this element while I make fun of Frank’s lack of skills.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Don. I like the idea of giving your partners complementary skills. It lets you develop both partners. In this case, it also allows for you to keep up with modern technology in your books.

  7. Five more new authors, which doesn’t do my reading any good. Margot, the payphone makes a frequent appearance in a mostly autobiographical nonfiction book I’m currently reading. It is set in the early nineties and well before smartphones. I’m sure there must be many a crime story featuring the phone booth.

    • I think there are a lot of crime novels that involve phone booths and pay phones, Prashant. That’s certainly a fixture we almost never see any more, but phone booths used to be everywhere. And I know what you mean about having more books on the wish list than time to read them *sigh.*

  8. Kathy D.

    There are so many contradictions in social media. It contributes to knowledge and communication and there are people I know only through Facebook and email. That’s OK. But there are so many horror stories about young women, even children, being tricked by predators. Parents have to be on top of this and monitor Chat rooms, Facebook, etc. It’s too risky.
    Even with adult women, sometimes there is danger on dating sites and Chat rooms. I’ve seen too many TV mysteries with this problem, including in the Irene Huss series. And others. Also, sadly, in the news, too. Beware.
    But social media does make for good mystery plot lines.

    • It really does make for good plots, Kathy. As you say, in real life social media is a proverbial double-edged sword. It’s risky, especially if one isn’t careful. But at the same time, it has so much to offer, and it’s really hard to avoid. So, like a lot of other things, you have to use it with caution.

  9. I think it’s going to be a major plotline in many crime books to come Margot. I like the way some of the writers I enjoy – Tana French, Elly Griffiths, Mick Herron – are using these modern ways. They make me realize the possibilities ahead.

    • I agree, Moira. Those authors are doing a fantastic job of showing how today’s communication can be woven into a good crime plot. And it’s fascinating, isn’t it, to think about how plots can be developed around things like social media.

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