Category Archives: Ian Rankin

Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

But They’re Back Again*

Returning to Old CasesSometimes a present-day murder case is integrally related to a past – even a long-ago – murder. When the police are faced with a case like that, it’s often useful to get information from the police who worked the original case. That’s not always possible, and it certainly doesn’t always go smoothly even if it happens. But tapping the knowledge of those who investigated the original case can give the police a really useful perspective. There are many, many examples of how this plays out in crime fiction; space only allows me a few. But if I know you good people, you’ll come up with more than I ever could anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to prove her mother innocent of murder. Sixteen years earlier, her mother, Caroline Crale, was arrested, tried and convicted in the poisoning death of her husband (and Carla’s father) Amyas Crale. There was plenty of evidence against her, but Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the case again. One of the people he speaks to is ex-Superintendent Hale, who was in charge of the case at the time. Like most of the other characters, Hale believes that Caroline Crale was guilty. He’s not particularly pleased, either, at what he sees as the insinuation that he and his team acted incompetently. Quick to reassure him, Poirot says,

‘I know you for what you are, an honest and capable man.’

And that’s why Poirot depends on Hale to give him the facts of the case and the evidence that the police amassed. Hale’s input doesn’t solve the case, but it provides Poirot with important information.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel helps to provide information about an old case in Recalled to Life. Cissy Kohler was in prison for years for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. Now she’s been released after serving her sentence. There are some not-very-flattering allegations that she was innocent, and that the investigator of record, Wally Tallentire, knew that, and tampered with evidence to that effect. Dalziel bitterly resents that. He was there at the time (Tallentire was his mentor), and is convinced that Tallentire handled the case appropriately. So he decides to look at the case again, more to prove his mentor right and clear his name than for any other reason.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate when two sets of remains are discovered on the property of Pity Wood Farm, in the Peak District. As one of their starting points, the police try to establish who owned the property at the time of the deaths. The farm used to belong to brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton, although it was recently sold to Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin. One of the avenues of exploration for the police is the nearby village of Rakedale. But very few people there are willing to talk to the police, and certainly not to talk about the Sutton brothers. So Fry and Cooper turn to Dave Palfreyman, recently retired from his job as the village bobby for Rakedale. He knows everyone in the area, and knows the history of Pity Wood Farm and of the Suttons. Palfreyman doesn’t return to official active duty in this novel, but he does give Fry and Cooper information, ‘copper to copper.’

In Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence, Sinikka Vehkasalo rides her bicycle to volleyball practice one afternoon, but never makes it. Her bicycle is later found, covered in blood and with the handlebars twisted the wrong way. Inspector Kimmo Joentaa takes the case, and he and his team get to work. One of the eerie things about this case is that the bicycle was found in the spot where, in 1974, Pia Lehtinen’s body was discovered after she’d gone missing. Joentaa himself didn’t work on that case, but recently-retired police detective Antsi Ketola did. Joentaa thinks that the two cases are connected, so he asks for Ketola’s help as he tries to make sense of this new case. It turns out that he’s quite right, and that someone has been keeping some dark secrets for many years.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus has recently returned to active duty in Saints of the Shadow Bible. And in one plot thread of that novel, he looks again a former case. It comes out that prominent business leader Stefan Gilmour may have participated in obstruction of justice in a case of murder more than thirty years old. At the time, Billy Saunders was arrested for beating Douglas Merchant to death. The case fell apart though, and Saunders never went to jail. Now, Internal Affairs officer Malolm Fox wants to look into this case again. He wants to show that the police involved in the investigation (and that includes then-Constable Rebus) colluded to keep Saunders from being imprisoned, because he was a snitch, more valuable to them ‘on the outside’ than behind bars. It’s an interesting case of a looking at a past case through the eyes of a copper who was there – and who may have helped to obstruct justice.

And then there’s Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill. When the body of Yvonne Jenkins is discovered in the Wilton Hotel, Bampton, the police think at first that it’s a straightforward case of suicide. But there’s more to it than that. A discovery is made that links the death to a terrible 1978 case. One day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together as usual. But only Rachel returned. A search was made for Sophie, but she was never found. If this death is linked to that 1978 case, then DI Francis Sadler and his team want to know as much about that case as possible. For that, Sadler turns to Superintendent Llewellyn, who was a part of that investigation. Llewellyn’s help turns out to be key in finding out what really happened to Sophie Jenkins, and how it’s connected to the present-day death. Admittedly, Llewellyn isn’t retired, but it’s interesting to see how his insights help to drive the investigation.

And that’s the thing about former detectives, and those senior detectives who go back to work on old cases. They are often rich resources, and can do much to aid an investigation. For them, doing so can provide a valuable opportunity for closure.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Carpenter and John Bettis’ Yesterday Once More.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jan Costin Wagner, Reginald Hill, Sarah Ward, Stephen Booth

A New World Order Has Been Formed*

1990sIt’s only been twenty years or so, so perhaps we don’t have a real perspective on the era yet. But the 1990s saw some major changes on several levels. And the crime fiction of and about that era reflects them. There won’t be space in this one post for me to mention all of them, so I’ll just mention a few. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more.

One of the most iconic moments of the decade was the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from prison on Robben Island. The ‘photos and videos of that day are unforgettable. Four years later, Mandela was elected President of South Africa. That time of the end of apartheid and the beginning of whatever might come next was both heady and uneasy. In a lot of ways, it still is. And Deon Meyer has captured the pain and promise of that time in several of his novels, such as Dead Before Dying, which was first published in Afrikaans in 1996. His characters come from a wide variety of different backgrounds, and all are trying to find places in the new South Africa. One thing that comes through in Meyer’s work is that such a major societal change has meant a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. That’s led to quite a lot of violence and other problems. Yet, Meyer’s South Africa is also a beautiful country with rich natural and human resources and much potential.

Another major event of the 1990s was the negotiation and long political process that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. That agreement, which involved the UK, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, established the conventions under which Northern Ireland is governed today. It also established several cross-border authorities and commissions created to oversee the end of armed hostilities and to deal with logistics such as the exchange of prisoners and the return of remains to families for burial. This treaty hasn’t completely and magically ended tension in the area. However, novels such as Colin Bateman’s 1995 Divorcing Jack show what places like Belfast were like before the treaty was signed. And there are many other novels too that depict the long history of conflict in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. In the last decade (Brian McGilloway’s work shows this), life on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland has achieved a sort of balance; people go on with their lives, and most would probably tell you they’re just as well pleased not to have to bury any more combatants.

In 1993, the Soviet Union broke up, leading to major shifts in geopolitics and business. And if you read crime novels such as Margaret Truman’s Murder in the House, Robin Cook’s Vector, or Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, you see a major shift in theme that reflects the breakup. Older crime fiction, or crime fiction about the Cold War, very often features espionage, CIA v KGB agents, and so on. But more recent crime fiction has new themes; the new Russian business oligarchs, Eastern European crime leaders, and human trafficking are just a few of the topics featured in novels of the last two decades.

There’s another important development that arguably fell out from the breakup of the Soviet Union; related power shifts among its former allies. For instance, the former Yugoslavia faced its own political crises during the late 1980’s and finally broke apart after the end of the Soviet Union. The war in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo cost many thousands of lives, and had effects in lots of places. Just ask Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. He is Chief of Police in the small French town of St. Denis. He is also a veteran of that war, and still bears the psychological scars of it, although he’s certainly functional. It’s part of why he’s just as well pleased to be living in a (mostly) peaceful place.

The end of the Soviet era also led to the introduction (or, better stated, re-introduction) of capitalism in a lot of places. That’s what we see in Qiu Xiaolong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. This series takes place in the late 1990s, when China is beginning to experiment with its own version of capitalism. In several of these novels, we see the interplay between traditional Chinese culture and Maoist communism, as well as the impact of more easily available consumer goods. It makes for an interesting backdrop to the stories.

One of the most important developments of this era, from several different perspectives, actually, was the advent of the Internet. There was email (although fully available, easily accessible email took a few years), but the instant information and communication we take so much for granted didn’t exist until after the mid-1990s. That single development has led to many, many other cascading developments such as social media, online shopping, ebooks and much more. And it’s all happened very quickly. For instance, Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney takes place in the late 1990s. By then, you could access email at Internet cafés and in offices, and there were several web sites available; Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel use computers in that way in The Dying Beach. But Internet-ready mobile ‘phones were still in the future.  So were blogs and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where users post their own content. And of course, that’s led to a whole new kind of crime novel…

The 1990s brought about several other changes, too – many more than I have space to mention. And because it’s only been twenty years or a bit longer, it’s very hard to say what all of the long-term outcomes of those changes (and sometimes upheavals) will be. As time goes by, we’ll see; I don’t think this story’s end has been written yet. What do you think? What are your strong memories of the 1990s? What do you see coming from it all?

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Who needs 1990s memorabilia when your own child is the best possible result of that decade? :-)


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Renaissance Man.


Filed under Angela Savage, Brian McGilloway, Colin Bateman, Deon Meyer, Ian Rankin, Margaret Truman, Martin Walker, Qiu Xiaolong, Robin Cook

One Word From You is All I Need to be Inspired*

Writing InspirationIn Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is talking to Hercule Poirot about how she gets inspired for her stories:

‘It does happen that way. I mean, you see a fat woman sitting on a bus…And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s wearing and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get off the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind…’

Later in the conversation, Mrs. Oliver points out (and I think, rightly, at least for me) that it would ruin the inspiration if she actually knew the woman she describes. Then the woman she created wouldn’t really be, well, her own creation.

Lots of fiction writers get asked if they base their stories on real people. And of course, there are plenty of authors who write fiction about real people (Hilary Mantel, Martin Edwards and Truman Capote, to name just three). But a lot of writers don’t quite do that.

What happens instead (well, at least for me) is that the writer may see an event, or read or hear about it. Or, perhaps the writer notices a stranger in a grocery store or restaurant or park. Whether it’s a person or event, it sparks the writer’s imagination. Then, the ‘what if questions’ happen: ‘That guy in the baseball cap is so wrapped up in his ‘phone that he’s not paying attention to anything. There could be a murder right behind him and he might not even notice! What would that be like?’  And the story starts to come together, just from that one scene.

Agatha Christie is said to have been inspired for Murder on the Orient Express by a personal experience in which she was caught on a train that was stopped because of snow. Of course, there wasn’t a murder on the train, and it wasn’t for three days, and…  But that one incident sparked her imagination. I can’t speak for her, of course, but my guess would be that she didn’t base the characters in that novel on specific people she knew. It’s possible that no-one on the train with her that day resembled any of the characters. Instead, it was the experience that got her thinking.

In October of 1999, two trains collided more or less head-on near Ladbroke Grove, a few miles from Paddington Station. There were 31 deaths and hundreds of injuries, and the incident left permanent scars. Ruth Rendell used that incident as the setting for her novel Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in which three women’s lives intersect as a result of the crash. Two lose their partners in the wreck; the third meets her fiancé because of it. When these three discover that they’ve all been duped by the same con artist (who was ostensibly killed in the crash) the result leads to some dark places. Rendell didn’t, as far as I know, base those characters directly on people she actually knew who survived the crash. Rather, the event itself sparked the story.

You might say the same sort of thing about Michael Connelly. As he has told the story, he was at a baseball game and got to talking with another person who was there. That man was a lawyer who didn’t have an office in the conventional sense of that word. Rather, he used his car as an office. If you’ve read Connelly’s work and that sounds familiar, it should. Connelly used this person he met as the inspiration for Mickey Haller, whom he introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer. Fans of Haller will know that he uses his car as an office, and travels all over Los Angeles to pursue his cases. The man Connelly met at the baseball game wasn’t named Mickey Haller, and very likely didn’t resemble Haller either in character or appearance. My guess is that instead, Connelly was inspired to imagine a lawyer who works out of his car, and the kind of cases he might encounter.

In discussing the creation of his John Rebus series, Ian Rankin has said that Rebus came to him as a fully-formed fictional character. But he (Rankin) was inspired by the place where he was living at the time he was writing Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. He has said that he wrote the story on a typewriter, sitting at a table by a window. From that window, he could see the tenement opposite, and decided that Rebus would live there – across the way. His living situation inspired the sort of home environment Rebus would have. Fans of this series will also know that Rankin has been inspired for several stories by other places in Edinburgh.

Here’s what Val McDermid says about the inspiration for her novel The Vanishing Point:

‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’

She took that moment of fear, with which any parent can identify, and used it to spark the story, even though fortunately, the events of the story didn’t happen in her personal life.

Some writers do use real people, of course. And if you’re interested in the legalities of that, please check out this fascinating post by Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. That’s a great crime fiction blog, by the way, that deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

A lot of writers, though, take those little ideas that come from people they see, events they watch (or learn about) or experiences, and use them to spark fictional stories. Admittedly it can be a bit difficult to explain the process. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like it.


ps  It’s not just authors who do this. So do those who write songs. For instance, Billy Joel was, so it is said, inspired to write New York State of Mind by a bus ride he took to West Point. And Allentown was inspired by a comment he heard from a fan.

Wait, what? You wonder why I’d mention a rock star in a crime fiction blog post? But it’s Billy Joel!! And it’s his birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Joel. And now I’m off to celebrate this important international holiday. Problem with that? Good! ;-)


*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Truman Capote, Val McDermid

Teach Your Parents Well*

DigitalNatives and ImmigrantsOne of the interesting effects of changing technology is arguably a generational divide. Quite often (certainly not always!) younger generations are comfortable with new technology, adapt to it easily and use it skillfully. Their parents and grandparents don’t always adapt as well (again this obviously isn’t always the case). In fact, some people call the newer generations ‘digital natives,’ and us not-so-new generations ‘digital immigrants.’ That’s not a bad description really.

We see this divide between using more traditional ways and using new ways woven all through crime fiction. That difference can lead to an interesting bit of tension in a plot, as well as a layer of character depth. And if the research is correct on who uses technology and how, it also reflects reality.

That difference has been around a long time, too. In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot is persuaded to look into a baffling series of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at a hostel for students. When hostel resident Celia Austin confesses to some of the thefts, it seems the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, apparently a successful suicide, everything changes. And when that death is proved to be murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe have a difficult case on their hands. At one point, Poirot has a conversation with hostel resident Colin McNabb about crime, punishment and detection. Here’s a tiny bit of it:


“You’ve given us an amusing talk tonight,” he said indulgently. ‘And I’ll not deny that you’re a man who’s had a varied and lengthy experience, but if you’ll excuse me for saying so, your methods and your ideas are both equally antiquated.’…
‘You take the narrow view of the Law – and what’s more of the Law at its most old fashioned. Nowadays, even the Law has to keep itself cognizant of the newest and most up to date theories of what causes crime. It is the causes that are important, Mr. Poirot.’
‘But there,’ cried Poirot, ‘to speak in your new fashioned phrase, I could not agree with you more!’…
Poirot said meekly, ‘My ideas are doubtless old fashioned, but I am perfectly prepared to listen to you, Mr. McNabb.’
Colin looked agreeably surprised.
‘That’s very fairly said, Mr. Poirot. Now I’ll try to make this matter clear to you, using very simple terms.’’

It’s interesting to see both the way in which McNabb condescends to Poirot, and the way Poirot reacts to it, knowing what crime fiction fans know about Poirot’s abilities.

In Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, there’s an interesting ‘digital divide.’ Diamond, who, as the title suggests, considers himself a true detective, relies on observation, evidence, witness/suspect reactions, and good old-fashioned detection. On the other hand, some of the members of Diamond’s team swear by computer-generated data, DNA and other modern forensic evidence and general data analysis. When the team investigates the murder of former TV star Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman, both traditional sleuthing skills and more modern digital data turn out to be important in solving the case.

There’s a small bit of this generational difference in technology use in Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti helps his assistant Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello with a family problem. Vianello’s aunt has lately fallen (so he thinks) prey to a horoscope scam (or perhaps more than one of them). Brunetti does know how to use computers, and is comfortable enough going online, but he’s still in many ways a ‘digital immigrant.’ He’s using the computer one day at lunchtime when he has a conversation with a younger team member about another use of the computer: online learning:

‘‘She’s [the instructor/facilitator] got a course we can take, ten lessons that we can take, my wife and me together.’
‘In Torino?’ [Brunetti]
‘Oh, no, sir,’ Riverre said with a gentle laugh. ‘We’re in the modern age now, me and my wife. We’re on line now, so all we have to do is sign up, and the class comes to our computer…’

Riverre’s information doesn’t solve the case, but it does show how the different generations sometimes think about learning.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus will know that he is neither stupid nor ignorant, so he knows that computers and modern technology can be very useful tools. But he is most definitely a ‘digital immigrant.’ He often relies on his assistant Sergeant Siobhan Clarke when computer expertise is required; she’s more comfortable and adept with modern technology than he is. Rankin doesn’t make this difference a ‘stock joke,’ but that difference comes through in various places in the series.

We also see some of those differences in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Television star Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford had been planning to leave the TV business and open up an antique store with her mother Iris. But those plans change completely when Iris calls to say she’s changed her mind. It turns out that Iris has taken the former carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall at Little Dipperton, Devon. Shocked at the news, Kat rushes to Devon, only to find the house in sad need of repair and her mother recovering from a broken hand. Among other things, Kat takes over as scribe for a project her mother’s been doing. Here’s a bit of their conversation about it:

‘‘How will I print out the pages?’ I said. ‘Is there somewhere in Dartmouth? A printing place I can use?’
‘I have no idea,’ Mum yawned. ‘Now you know why I don’t have a computer. With a typewriter, you just type, pull out the paper, and it’s done.’
There was little point in arguing.’

The difference in thinking fades to the background when the housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall goes missing, and is later found dead. Stanford takes an interest in the case both the protect herself and her mother from suspicion, and to answer some questions of her own.

To be fair, the generational divide isn’t always a yawning gulf. For instance, there’s Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, which takes place in the not-very-distant future (2019) and in a slightly altered reality. So as you can imagine, there’s some interesting technology available. In this story, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner Mike Baxter investigate two deaths of young women who were murdered by injections of phenol. Then, a third body is discovered. This time, the victim is Broadway star Vivian Jessup, who’s in town to work with a local theatre group. Now McCabe and Baxter have to determine whether the same person killed all three women, or whether there is more than one murderer at work. Throughout the novel, McCabe gets quite a lot of help from her father Angus, a retired journalist. He’s as adept as his daughter at using modern technology and has access to sources she doesn’t. So the information he provides is quite useful.

That said though, in many cases, there is often a generational difference in the way we think about and use technology. Have you noticed it? Do you use technology differently to the way your younger friends and loved ones do? If you’re a writer, does that divide play a role in your stories?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Frankie Y. Bailey, Hannah Dennison, Ian Rankin, Peter Lovesey