“RIP, Gumshoe Detective” by Sarah Hilary

Is modern technology killing the detective?

Maybe it’s just me, but don’t you hate it when detectives get a leg up from modern technology? I’m far from being a Luddite, but I do find it dull when the narrative trots off in the brightly-lit direction of the internet, aided and abetted by assorted blunt weaponry such as the Blackberry or iPad.

Mobile phones are the worst offenders. Every character always knows where every other character is at any given time. They can call for back-up, or just to pick the brains of a colleague. It’s good to talk, apparently. Personally I preferred the days when the hero could become perilously isolated, his call for help delayed in transit or thwarted by a vandalised phonebox.

Then there’s the research angle. A detective is brilliant at hunting down clues, extrapolating, following his nose, trying out angles. Or, you know, putting words into Google and, erm, instantly eliminating multiple avenues of investigation. He used to risk his neck doing this stuff, now the biggest threat to his wellbeing is a nasty bout of RSI.

There’s your detective novel done for, right there. RIP gumshoe hero.

As I said, I’m no Luddite. But sometimes I surprise in myself an idle wish for a satellite serial killer who will do for modern technology what the Millennium Bug was meant to do. Just, you know, so my heroes (and those of others) could have something more exciting to do all day than go online and run up a massive Orange network bill.

I wonder if this thought is behind the recent fascination with historical crime? A return to the good old days when heroes could be baffled and blind-alleyed, and had to work their socks (or clocked-stockings) off to get their man? I expect so.

The silver lining, as I see it?

Logically, since modes of investigation are becoming limited and less random, that which differentiates one author from another and one book from the rest, should be characterisation.

My favourite example right now would be Fred Vargas. Her hero, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, is a man so enduringly quirky that even the revelation that he had a secret Facebook account couldn’t render him anything less than fascinating to read.

You can lead a man to Google, but you can’t make him think. The way in which he does that is in the hands of the author, regardless of who owns the network. So let’s hope crime writers continue to serve up intriguing characters who sometimes forget to recharge their cellphones or know better than to trust what they read online.

12 thoughts on ““RIP, Gumshoe Detective” by Sarah Hilary

  1. Walt Giersbach

    Well, yes, I can take your point, having just seen “Chinatown” for the umpteenth time last night. But I’m also working on my Newark cop series who’s unraveling a psychotic criminal using the Internet to terrorize college students, and in another short story, the protag is omnisciently watched by his EZ pass, street corner video cams, and taps put on by disinterested agencies. Can’t condemn tech. Gotta live with it.

  2. Sarah Hilary

    Having just finished Fred Vargas’ “Wash this blood clean from my hand” I feel I should pay tribute to her 70-year-old, ex-socialite computer hacker, who helps Adamsberg track down the killer when all official routes have been closed to him. Genuis!

  3. Jane Hakes

    Well, I’m going to disagree… slightly. I don’t like so much techno-babble that it begins to sound like Sci-Fi, but on the other hand I find a modern detective, police officer, or just about anyone unbelievable if they don’t have a mobile phone and some Internet access. It just goes with the times and the territory….otherwise, set the story in the early 70s at the latest.

    1. Sarah Hilary

      Good point, Jane, although I’d hope over time the technology would become seamless with the plot/character. My problem is where detective (and author) seems to rely over-much on it to shortcut more interesting avenues of investigation. I’m currently reading a Fred Vargas book where technology is much more “in the open” – and it does nothing to detract from the great characters and dynamic. So it can be done well.

  4. Sarah Hilary

    I agree, Frances. As it is, they’ve spoiled the recent Jonathan Kellerman books for me. Much preferred the days when Dr Delaware burned shoe leather looking for clues…

  5. Frances Ham

    I have often thought about the way in which the use of mobile ‘phones would ruin a good detective story of the Raymond Chandler type. Maybe as well as forgetting to charge their cell phones they could find themselves in places with no signal to make the plot more interesting…..

  6. Sarah Hilary

    Thanks, Belantana! (I’ve just had to make a “search and replace” edit throughout my ms, because a tech-savvy reader pointed out a major flaw – so I’d better not say anything about non-tech-savvy authors getting it wrong!!)

  7. belantana

    So true! The most annoying thing I find is when the author chooses to set a novel in the present day but ignores technology altogether, presumably because s/he can’t hack the research. Or even more annoying – when they research half-heartedly and throw in random mentions of Teh Intarwebz to show how tech-savvy they are!

    Great post, Sarah. :)

  8. Sarah Hilary

    Ah, yes, Maxine. I know exactly the sort of thing you mean. It’s a wonder how we women get ourselves dressed in the morning sometimes, isn’t it? Personally I prefer to sit around, half-clad, waiting for a Real Man to come along and sort me out…

  9. Claire King

    Have you read Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May books? Great contemporary detective novels and pretty much technology free.

  10. Maxine

    There was a time when the Internet was young when you had to read “tutorials” in crime fiction, eg that one in the Rebus series where Rebus has to get Siobhan to read his email, etc, as he can’t do it.

    One author I find incorporates new technology extremely well into traditional plots is Michael Connelly. Very impressive.

    There is also a class of crime fiction cliche concerning technology – mobile phone lack of battery/signal, etc, which, sadly, rather than forcing the detective back onto the traditional skills you mention in your post, usually serves to introduce the further cliche of “woman in peril” (as she can’t use her mobile phone for one reason or another). Very unsatisfying for the reader!