An interesting post from José Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot has got me thinking about the way we interact with people we don’t know. In his post (which you’ll want to read), José Ignacio reviews Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, which takes place mostly at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay in Devon. Hercule Poirot, who’s there on holiday, gets involved in a murder investigation when fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered.
One of the interesting things about this novel is the way Christie uses the interactions among the guests, some of whom were complete strangers to each other when they first arrived. And yet, they come to know a lot about one another as the story goes on. They play tennis, they sit and chat, and so on, and those conversations form part of the plot. In large part, that’s because in 1941, when the novel was published, modern electronics weren’t available. Television had been invented, but most people didn’t have one. That meant that, especially on holiday, people were more inclined to talk to one another.
That’s also apparent in Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, which takes place at the Ocean House resort in Ford’s Beach, Maine. In that novel, a young man named Amberley Cowden is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. He had a serious heart condition and wasn’t expected to live long. So, his death might have been natural. But was it? Rare book expert Henry Gamadge is staying at the same resort and gets involved in the investigation. In this novel, too, we see people who don’t know each other start to talk and interact. There are many other novels, too (I’m thinking of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, for instance), in which people come to the same place for a holiday and interact quite a lot with strangers. That’s what people did before television and other modern electronics changed the way we communicate.
It’s arguably harder for contemporary authors to create a credible similar scenario (where strangers at a hotel or other gathering place start chatting with each other and get to know each other). It still happens of course. For instance, if I may, let me share a personal example. Not many years ago, there was a widespread power outage in the area where I live. It affected my entire community. Without television, air conditioning, or the Internet, people wandered outdoors, and began chatting. The big topic was, of course, the blackout itself. But we started talking about other things, too. That sort of scenario also happens in fiction, too, and gives the author plenty of opportunities for conflict, misdirection, and more.
That said, though, today’s authors often need to explore the other ways in which people communicate and get to know each other. For instance, Cat Connor’s Ellie Conway is an FBI Special Agent (Later Supervising Special Agent (SSA)). Her cases often involve online groups, chat rooms, and other fora, both legitimate and in the ‘dark web.’ These groups also involve people who are complete strangers to each other at first, but who get to know one another. A major difference between these groups and an in-person collection of strangers is that it’s very easy to be anyone you want online. So, contemporary crime novelists can build tension and suspense as they explore what online anonymity may be covering up.
That’s what happens, for instance, in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me. When Gerry and Yvonne Mulhern move from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, it means big changes for everyone. For Gerry, a new job offers a lot of promise for his career. For Yvonne, though, the changes aren’t so easy. She’s overwhelmed by the many demands of tending to a newborn. And she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. Then, she finds an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a mutual support group for new mothers, and for Yvonne, it’s a lifesaver. She finally begins to find the friendship and help that she’s been needing. And then, one of the forum members goes ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne gets concerned enough to go to the police about it, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an empty apartment. Her description matches that of Yvonne’s missing online friend. But is it the same person? If so, what does this mean for Netmammy? Is someone in the group adopting an identity? Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates the murder and finds the link between the online group and the dead woman.
The anonymity of online groups can provide another sort of protection. In Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China, for instance, Chief Inspector Chen Cao learns about an online watchdog group. In the late-1990s Shanghai in which Chen lives and works, it can be very risky to chat about certain things in real life. And people don’t generally do a lot of face-to-face chatting with complete strangers, anyway. It’s different online, though. Because of the government’s close supervision of printed news, many people feel that the only credible news comes from the Internet. And that’s mostly because it’s harder for the government to keep tabs on members of online groups. So, when an online watchdog group accuses Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, of corruption, the government has a dilemma. On the one hand, they have to act on the accusation, because the group has made the alleged corruption public. On the other hand, it’s in the interest of the government to monitor and, if necessary, clamp down on this online group. And Chen gets caught in the middle of it all when Zhou suddenly dies. Is it suicide, as the government claims? Or did someone kill Zhou?
Technology has radically changed the way we do a lot of things, including communicate. But what’s interesting is that it hasn’t changed the fact that we communicate. People have a need to reach out, whether it’s face-to-face or online, even to complete strangers. That dynamic can add a lot to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lewis Lebish, Jerry Leiber, Irving Nahan, Mike Stoller, and George Treadwell’s Dance With Me.