There are certain words and phrases which, when used, immediately date you. People of my generation know that the default way to let parents know you have got home safely is to give three rings. We also know that when ringing from a phonebox the sound of the pips means you have precisely five seconds less time than you need to say what you want. I guess that right now you are either feeling wistful for a time now gone, or wondering what on earth I am talking about, but no matter. Today I want to discuss the tricky topic of modernity as it relates to crime fiction.
The title of this blog is taken from Frederick Knott’s stage play Dial M for Murder which premiered in 1952. In 1954 Alfred Hitchcock released a film version, same name same writer, and in 1998 it was remade by Andrew Davis as A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow providing modern-day versions of the characters first portrayed by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Both films are worthy of repeat viewings, but I wonder if you’ve ever considered how the premise dates the story. Both versions require the victim to stop what they are doing and walk into another room to answer a ringing phone. Fair enough you may argue, but gone are the days when homes had a single phone, usually found at the foot of the stairs by the front door. I remember when a ringing phone was a source of mystery and wonder. Three short rings followed by silence would herald a serenity in my mother that was profound. It meant that whoever was on the other end was safe. That seems like a lifetime ago. The advent of technology and its role in our lives has brought many things to be applauded and derided in equal measure and for writers, this brings both opportunities and problems.
The problems are easy to identify. For example, some plot lines are no longer viable, Romeo and Juliet for instance. When was the last time you saw star-crossed lovers, particularly teenage lovers, be anything but glued to their phones? Spy dramas have changed beyond recognition under the advance of technology. Gone are the Cold War requirements of stealth, disguise and placing a hair across your wardrobe to check whether anyone had entered the room in your absence. Finding a place to hide is harder these days. One of the many reasons the world was so shocked when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared was that it, well, that it disappeared. How is that even possible given our near-total reliance on technology and automation? GPS tracking, find-my-phone, CCTV, ATMs, credit cards, and internet cookies all have valuable uses in life, but they lend themselves to the seen rather than the unseen.
The opportunities, however, are infinite. And to be honest they always have been. Classic crime fiction is a battle between equally matched groups. Good guy versus bad guy. When the cards are stacked so heavily against one side then it changes the story, not in a bad way, at least not necessarily, but it drifts the genre into other areas such as surveillance and forensics. The trick is to use the technology of the day to your advantage. Before mobile phones were commonplace was a spouse who went out jogging carrying small coins a) being prudent in case they needed to call home in an emergency, or b) really off to call a secret lover from a phone box? Was a call that cut off during the pips cut off by accident or because the caller was expecting someone else to answer? The skill of the writer is in adapting the demands of the plot to the vagaries of the age.
If your character can’t move around the city without being recorded on CCTV then find a way to have them also appear on CCTV in another city, at the same time. If the entire premise of your TV show is based around wiretapping then have your Baltimore based criminals use mobile phones for a day or two before disposing of them and getting new ones. Technology allows writers to explore new types of stories with Eeny Meeny (2014) by M.J. Arlidge being a very recent example. The premise involves a kidnapped pair of victims who wake to find a mobile phone and a gun with a single bullet. One of you must die for the other to be freed is the message delivered when the phone rings.
The pitfalls, however, are plentiful. Writers must ward against cliché. The lack of mobile phone reception whilst stranded in a remote location is now so overused as a plot device as to be instant parody. They must also ward against reading history backwards from today rather than forwards from the point in question. Fall foul of this and you produce characters that act in a manner unbecoming of their age. But so what if a whole range of plot devices from the poisoned stamp to the single ringing telephone have been consigned to history? As a writer, you can set your story whenever you like and you can make the vagaries of that age bend to your will. Take the three rings as an example. The three rings that provided so much comfort. Mum never questioned who they were from…it could have been anyone on the other end…
Last year I tore a muscle in my leg and I couldn’t walk properly for weeks. In the early days of recovery, I was told to take my phone with me to the bathroom so that if I slipped in the bath I could call for help easily. Sage advice if you ever find yourself lodging at the Bates Motel. If only Janet Leigh had owned a mobile phone.