Friday, September 2, 2016

phones, letters and detectives

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.


  1. I agree. One of the reasons I prefer older mysteries is the prevalence of computers, and cell phones, etc. I spend all day at work with computers and I don't need technology so prevalent in my reading.

  2. In the early 1990s I worked for a firm that distributed movies and television from East Asian countries, esp. Hong Kong to North America. At that time I watched 3-400 movies & tv programs a year just for work purposes.

    One thing I remember strongly was that the Hong Kong material had lits of product placement from the Hutchison-Whampoa who were trying to encourage first pager and later mobile telephone service, and paid for each individual use in a movie or tv series. The pagers were perfect in romantic comedies and dramas because they allowed endless games of telephone tag, often involving public telephones. But it was interesting how the crime pictures were so wedded to classic Hollywood and European models that they used these very poorly in the thriller portion while often using them masterfully in the romance subplots.

    Mobile phones were quite different, almost uniquely destructive to usual narratives, especially in crime dramas. Often the writers/directors would just try to ignore them. You would see characters using a mobile phone in one scene and then waiting by a telephone for a certain call later, pinned in position. The only creative use of the phone is in the thriller when one rings at the wrong time or one calls the number to find where the person is in the darkened room, etc... But these are thriller devices not usable in true mysteries.

    I don't see a way around this for mysteries which are so much about lack of information, just being able to do an internet search will reveal imposters too easily, and if the character is a policeman or investigating magistrate, artificial constraints are necessary. I think this must be why scientific forensic books and tv shows are so popular today, that seems to be the last refuge.

    1. I don't see a way around this for mysteries which are so much about lack of information

      Roy, you've hit the nail on the head. Mysteries can only work if the truth is revealed slowly bit-by-bit, to both the detective and the reader (or the audience).

      Suspense thrillers are slightly different in that the reader/audience usually knows what's going on long before the protagonist does but it's still absolutely crucial that the protagonist must not be able to discover the truth quickly or easily.

      And modern communications technology works the wrong way for these genres - it provides too much information and it provides it instantly. It makes these genres almost impossible.

  3. I agree completely, technological advances have been bad. One thing I miss in both novels and film are the scenes in which a character must rush to a library or bookstore (or wait for same to open). Now, the information required is usually just keystrokes away. The same is true with translation; not only is it possible for, say, Google Translate to identify a language, it will provide a rough translation. No need for that trip out to the university.

    Several months ago I read a 1978 thriller, The Quebec Plot by Leo Heaps, in which the hero discovers a line of verse that holds a key to some sort of conspiracy. He consults a professor, who with the help of students manages to identify the poem. Such a thing would never happen today; all would move along at a more rapid, less challenging, clip. Not so frustrating for the protagonist; not so interesting for the reader.

    1. One thing I miss in both novels and film are the scenes in which a character must rush to a library or bookstore

      Yes! Those kinds of scenes were always fun and they were great for gradually revealing vital information. And more often than not the book containing the really vital information would be missing, or the villain had got there first and removed it!