by Janis Patterson
Modern technology is taking a lot of the fun out of mystery writing. I mean, with caller ID, DNA, tracking devices, the ability to ping cell towers, virtual reality crime scene re-creation, instant background checks through multiple databases, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, facial recognition, computer access.... well, you know what I mean. What is there left to detect? A computer geek with access to the proper modern toys can often solve the mystery without leaving the comfort of his ergonomic chair in his mother's basement.
The more widely spread such electronic goodies become, the harder it becomes for mystery writers to find ways for their electronically-challenged sleuths to create a believable scenario. Some have frankly given up and fled into the past, where real, human-based detecting is the norm. Others twist probability into pretzels by locating their stories on remote islands, during power outages, and the like. A few - a very few - writers have mastered the balance of solving crimes with electronically available data and human detecting in a palatable form. I salute them. Many, many more have not.
Let's face it - while many if not most people use electronic toys such as cell phones and computers, how many are really conversant with how they work? We hit one button dialing or click a screen to make phone calls, we surf the net with a few clicks, but that's about the extent of a lot of people's knowledge. I'm one of them, and to me it's boring where in a mystery the detective (either by himself or with his super-techy partner) look at a computer screen, spout a couple of incomprehensible tech words (which to the average reader might as well be Urdu or Dogon) and poof! - there is a clue if not the entire solution to the mystery. Somehow some TV shows do this well and believably, but in books.... boorrring! And I suspect somehow the palatability of super-tech in TV shows has a lot to do with how hot the actor is spouting all the computer jargon!
So what is a tech-challenged writer to do? We can't all put our mysteries on desert islands or during power outages or someplace else where instant information is not the norm. We can't all have our sleuth continually forgetting to charge his/her cell phone or leaving it behind. Most people in real life seem to have their cell phones surgically attached! Now we not only have to craft a believable mystery but also create logical reasons why our sleuth can't jump on the 'net, do a few clicks and find out at least half a book's information, including, of course, the one pertinent clue that solves the mystery. All of which, sadly, would in real logically take place on page 25 or so. Sigh.
I don't have any answers. I've taken heat from readers because my sleuths are tech-challenged, then declaring that my stories aren't believable because my sleuths aren't in constant contact with the 'net. One of my solutions is to have a sleuth (Flora Melkiot, EXERCISE IS MURDER, MURDER IN DEATH'S WAITING ROOM) who is elderly - but don't let her hear you say that - and finds modern technology both unmannerly and common. Plus, she is wildly nosy and loves winkling information out of other people. She is also quite rich, and I think I would like to grow up and be her!
Anyway, this problem is not going away. For those of you who can believably construct a mystery using modern technology in a way that is palatable with the majority of readers - I salute you! For the rest of us... I don't know. I just might follow my betters and escape to the past, where rotary dials are cutting edge, cars have manual transmissions (my favorite!), and privacy was not only the norm, but valued. I know I'll see some of you there!
On another note, I would like to say that my YouTube channel is up and running - and I would be most appreciative if you would drop by. It's called Janis' Tips and Tales, and a new episode is released on the fourth Thursday of every month. Thank you!