In her recent review of T H White’s Darkness at Pemberley Kate Macdonald makes the following observation:
Our frustration from the characters having to rely on leaving messages for each other from public telephones is something that readers have only experienced in the last 15 years: before that, public telephones were the only way for amateur detectives to stay in touch with a manhunt, and we took them for granted. So much necessary tension has been lost from modern detective fiction by the mobile phone.
I have to say I wholeheartedly agree. I love the use of telephones in old detective stories (and old thrillers as well). The hero would not only have to find a public telephone at the vital moment - the villain could cut the phone lines and even more fun would ensue.
In fact it’s a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine that technological advance has been extremely bad for the detective novel. It’s not just telephones. Many crucial plot points in classic detective fiction hinge on the arrival (or sometimes non-arrival of letters), or on knowing exactly when a letter was posted or delivered. And the fun didn’t stop there - there was also the nature of the letter itself. What make of typewriter was used? If handwritten there was the question of identifying the handwriting. The paper itself could provide vital clues. All that enjoyment is simply lost with emails.
Telegrams could also be very useful to the writer of detective stories.
It seems like a certain amount of technology is beneficial to the detective story. Cars and telephones were a definite asset and even aircraft could be advantageously worked in. Trains of course were absolutely essential. I’d even go so far as to say that the detective story could never have flourished in the days before railways.
The detective story required a society with some degree of technological sophistication but the Law of Diminishing Returns has certainly kicked in with a vengeance. Digital technology is just not as much fun.