With today’s technology, it’s very easy to contact people in other countries. So, we often take that ability for granted. But that hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t until 1905, for instance, that wireless transmission between Europe and North America was commercially available. The advent of international wireless communication meant that it was far easier and less costly to broadcast, and to send messages.
Police in different countries have, since then, used wireless transmission (and, today, of course, email and other electronic communication) to do their jobs, even when a suspect crosses international borders. We certainly see that in cases of true crime.
For example, Dr. Harvey Hawley Crippen was arrested, convicted, and executed for the murder of his wife. There are arguments that he was innocent, and some people believe that a grave miscarriage of justice happened in this case. What isn’t in dispute, though, is the way in which Crippen was caught. He saw that the police suspected him, at least for a time, and decided it would be best to flee the UK. So, Crippen and his mistress, Ethel ‘Le Neave’ Neave, made plans for a transatlantic journey to Canada. They were on board the Montrose when its captain identified them, although Le Neve was disguised as a boy. The captain used wireless communication to contact Scotland Yard. Inspector Drew, who’d been investigating this murder, boarded another ship, which followed after the one which carried Crippen and Le Neve. The papers got wireless updates on how close the two ships were, and reported the news when Drew boarded the Montrose, and arrested Crippen. For a fascinating perspective on the Crippen case, you’ll want to read Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman, which is a fictional account of the murder and its investigation, told mostly from Crippen’s point of view.
In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot uses wireless communication to help solve the murder of the 4th Baron Edgware, who was stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect is the victim’s wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson. But she says she was at a party in another part of London at the time of the murder, and there are twelve people who are ready to swear in court that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, Poirot learns of a letter that may be relevant to the case. The author of the letter lives in America, but Poirot uses wireless communication to get in contact, and to arrange to see the letter. It turns out to be very important to solving the case.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series begins with Roseanna. In that novel, a young woman’s body is dredged up from Lake Vättern. There’s no identification, and no-one has reported a missing person who matches that description. Eventually, though, she is identified as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden at the time she was murdered. At the same time, Lieutenant Elmer Kafka of the Lincoln, Nebraska police is working on Roseanna McGraw’s case from another angle. She’s been reported missing, and he’s trying to locate her. When he and Martin Beck get in contact, they’re able to pool resources and, in the end, get answers to their questions. And it’s all made possible through wireless communication.
Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s series features Miami-based PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano. Her parents moved their family from Cuba to Florida after Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Since that time, the family’s settled into South Florida. But they’ve held on to their Cuban culture. They speak Cuban Spanish, retain their Cuban cultural ways, and so on. And Solano’s father dreams of the time when he and his family can, as he sees it, go home. Because of the relations between the US and Cuba, it’s very difficult to get a lot of reliable information about what’s happening in Cuba. But there are commercial and private radio transmissions, and Solano’s father listens to them constantly. He wants to be completely ready if word comes (as he hopes it will) that Castro is out of power and it’s safe to return to Cuba.
Wireless radio transmission is an essential for communication in areas such as Canada’s Far North, where many places are inaccessible, and where telephones and Internet connections aren’t always possible. We see that use of radio to solve crimes in several books that take place in that part of the world. One of them is M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. In it, we are introduced to Ellesmere Island hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. She’s a champion guide, so it’s a real shock when one of her clients, Felix Wagner, is fatally shot. His companion, Andy Taylor, claims he’s innocent, and there’s evidence to support him. So, the incident is put down to a tragic accident. Edie isn’t so sure it was an accident, but she knows that if she causes trouble, the local council will revoke her guide license. So, she goes along with this explanation on the surface. But she still has concerns. She contacts Sergeant Derek Palliser, the senior of Ellesmere Island’s native police officers, and shares her misgivings. There’s not much he can do at first, but then, there’s a disappearance. And a suicide that very well could be murder. Now, it’s clear that something very big is going on. Each in a different way, the two sleuths look for answers, and in the end, we learn the truth about these three incidents and how they’re connected. Throughout the novel, we see how wireless radio is used to connect with others and get information.
We may not think about it very often, especially with the prevalence of the Internet and other forms of communication. But international wireless radio has played a really important part in crimes and their solution, but real and fictional. And it still does.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wall of Voodoo’s Mexican Radio.