In the real world, physical crimes are on the wane while cyber-crimes are taking off. It makes sense; why would a criminal risk an armed robbery when they could empty your bank account without getting out of bed?
In crime fiction, as in crime fighting, technology can help or hinder and we have come a long way since Sherlock Holmes first peered through his magnifying glass in 1887’s A Study In Scarlet.
This, by the way, is believed to be the first time the iconic device – the ubiquitous symbol for the search function on our computers – was used in a detective novel.
Fiction and reality have long raced each other to be the first to employ crime-busting technology. In 1883, in Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain told how a bloody fingerprint had led to the conviction of a murderer.
But it wasn’t until 1892 in Argentina that we have the first record of a real crime being solved using prints to confirm the identity of a suspect, one Francisca Rojas whose bloody thumbprint betrayed her before she confessed to the gruesome murder of her two sons. However, it would be decades before fingerprint records were used track down suspects, rather than confirm culprits, a process accelerated these days by computers.
Basic communication is a key element in mysteries. The spread of telephones was probably the greatest leap forward in crime fighting and fiction alike. Soon the delays between crimes being committed and being reported evaporated.
By the middle of the 20th century the phone was an essential part of crime novels – Raymond Chandler’s was almost another character – but nowhere more significantly than in Melbourne writer June Wright’s 1948 novel Murder in the Telephone Exchange where the deadly weapon was a “buttinski” – a phone used by operators to interrupt ongoing calls.
Since then science has surged forward. Advances in DNA have brought many criminals to justice, often belatedly, while freeing many wrongly convicted criminals from Death Row. It has made the work of both serial killers and mystery writers a lot tougher too. Both are finding it harder to cover their tracks.
As readers we seek the same components that real detectives would be looking for: means, opportunity and motive. So we often need to not know where our suspects were and what they were doing at the time of the crime.
But the smartphone in your pocket or the fitness watch on your wrist can be used to track every move you make. Then there are your journeys by car being logged by the tollgates you pass through, while your public transport, taxi and Uber journeys are all being recorded on a computer somewhere.
Dare to go on the internet and you are just Google-bait and Facebook fodder. Take a picture with a digital camera or phone and the date, time and location are probably all recorded. Fail to Instagram your lunch and it’s as if you have ceased to exist.
In Australia we’ve already had at least one murder conviction established by electronic toll records showing the victim’s car was closely followed by the culprits’, on their way to try to fake the former’s suicide.
Adnan Sayed, the dubiously identified culprit in the ground-breaking podcast Serial, was convicted with the aid of mobile phone triangulation and may yet be reprieved thanks to better understanding of how that technology works.
Then there are so many video cameras in virtually every shop, office entrance or street corner that you have to wonder why anyone bothers committing a crime in the first place.
For the crime writer, technology presents a field of logical landmines that range from “why don’t they just call the cops?” to “don’t say the CCTV recorder isn’t working again!”
Authors can tie themselves in narrative knots trying to keep their detective away from critical information that would normally be freely available. The alternative is to set your crimes in an era when technological advancement was equated with witchcraft.
It was George Pelecanos’ 2011 book The Cut that first gave this reader (and writer) crime fiction gadget shock. Pelecanos, who writes gritty TV dramas such as The Wire and award-winning crime fiction, had a new hero pull out his iPhone and record some verbal notes before using it to take pictures.
It felt barely a fingerprint whorl away from him saying “Siri, who stole the money?’ But the digital genie was out of the virtual bottle.
While Sherlock Holmes used a magnifying glass to peer at clues, Michael Connelly’s detective, Harry Bosch, lights them up with the torch function on his phone.
Yes, Bosch – quintessential grumpy old man of modern crime fiction – now uses a smartphone. When he “reached out” in 1992 in his first appearance in The Black Echo, it would have been via the phone on his desk or a payphone on the street.
Back then, in those pre-call-centre, phone-spamming days, most people who had phones were listed in a directory that also gave their addresses.
Now Bosch and other fictional detectives use their phones to access information held on computers, photograph crime scenes, record interviews – sometimes secretly – and instantly examine files emailed to them.
In recent novels Bosch uses Google maps to find a house then Streetview to see what it looks like. His offsider videos two suspects while walking past, pretending to make a phone call. Bosch later uses a tracker-blocking device he bought on ebay.
The use of technology offers smart writers a whole new set of weapons, especially with the advent of the “internet of things” – domestic appliances that can be hacked into and controlled remotely.
In an interview on US National Public Radio in 2016 Jeffrey Deaver explained how a character in his crime novel The Steel Kiss hacked into a couple’s baby monitor to terrorise them.
In the same program, science-fiction writer William Hertling described how a character in one of his stories remotely took control of a domestic heating furnace and turned it into a deadly carbon monoxide-producing machine.
It was only after I had finished my novel, Perfect Criminals, that I realised how often my characters had employed modern devices that we use every day, starting with smart phones – including their cameras, voice recorders and internet access.
Then there was social media, Google searches and location trackers. One character deletes the metadata on potentially incriminating pictures. Another plants a virus on an unsuspecting victim’s computer.
At one point I even had my heroes the focus of an online hate campaign – not because it was trendy but because, in that context, it was likely.
None of this was the main point of the novel, heaven forbid, but these were aspects of technology that we all use or encounter every day and it would have been weird not to have employed them.
Of course, the smart crime writer uses these devices as opportunities rather than challenges. Take your villain off the grid, eschewing smartphones, abandoning Opal or Myki cards, switching off sat-navs, using only cash rather than trackable credit cards, and payphones (if they can find one) and you have created the invisible man or woman.
Even so, secrets are harder to hide today, a world of knowledge is literally at our fingertips and everyone is out there on social media.
The downside is that your local neighbourhood serial killer can discover your favourite coffee bars, restaurants and nightclubs – as well as where and when you go to the gym – just by following you on Twitter and “friending” you on Facebook.
But don’t worry – right behind them there’s a crime writer, taking notes and trying to stay ahead of the game. Just hope that he or she uses their smartphone to call the police, rather than record the mayhem when the killer strikes.
Perfect Criminals by Jimmy Thomson is published by Affirm Press at $29.99.