The Trouble With Tech

Sue Grafton loved to explain that she kept her private investigator heroine, Kinsey Millhone, locked in the 1980s so that Kinsey wouldn’t have the luxury of such technology as cell phones and laptops to assist in her investigations. And I have to say, I sometimes wish I’d done the same with my sleuth.

Get-togethers just aren’t the same these days…

In fact, at the time I was writing the first in my Sally Solari series, Dying for a Taste, I did not myself even own a smart phone. But because virtually everyone else I knew did, it soon became clear that Sally—a gal in her late thirties—would of course have to have a phone. Problem was, I didn’t know how to use one. So I had to enlist my friends to show me how the darn things worked, to ensure Sally wouldn’t seem like a complete dork.

But the bigger problem with including things like smart phones in my stories is that the availability of such technology to Sally makes the plotting of the books difficult:

Why doesn’t she just call for help, rather than waiting around to face down the bag guy? Or, Couldn’t she Google that and immediately know the answer? These are the sorts of questions that taunt me as I plot out my stories. And on occasion, it can be almost impossible to come up with a believable reason that Sally can’t simply pull out her cell phone and solve whatever problem is before her.

Yes, of course, you can have your sleuth (1) lose her phone; (2) forget to charge it; (3) accidentally run it over; or (4) drop it in the toilet. But as a reader, I always find it annoying when such things occur in stories. Really? She left her phone at the restaurant? <shakes head in disbelief>

So I try to come up with ways to incorporate all the modern technology to my advantage:

Maybe she does text someone, but then it backfires because the bad guy sees the light from her phone as she does so. (Oooo… I like that one; maybe I’ll use it!)

Or what if she reads something online, sending her down a dangerous rabbit hole, only to later discover that what she learned via social media isn’t in fact true? (Like that would never happen…)

But mostly, I try to have plots that revolve primarily around actual human beings interacting personally, rather than via technology, so that the characters’ phones, iPads, and laptops are not integral to the story.

And this is where it’s a blessing to be a cozy mystery author.

We cozy readers and writers love stories about small towns and neighborhoods, where everyone knows everyone else, right? So if your sleuth wants to talk to or interview someone, she’ll stop by their house, or visit them at the shop where they work. Because you’re going to get a lot more out of the interaction if you can actually see the person’s face and read their body language, right? (And, no, FaceTime is not a fair substitute.)

So maybe, in a sense, we aficionados of the cozy genre are ourselves stuck in the 1980s. (Without the leg warmers and parachute pants, thank goodness.)

But that all said, I do sometimes wish I could write a scene with my character searching his pockets for change so he can make an important call in a good old phone booth…

Readers: What do you think about modern technology in mysteries? Do you like the characters to depend on their laptops and smart phones, or would you prefer they have to use more old-school methods of investigation?

41 thoughts on “The Trouble With Tech

  1. I prefer more old-school methods of investigation. There’s nothing like a face-to-face conversation. And while I don’t mind technology in books, I definitely don’t want to read about someone solving mysteries by Googling for answers!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I don’t mind tech in books, but I don’t want that to be the only thing. My police officer often says how he prefers conducting interviews face-to-face because he gets a better read on the conversation. So my tech is there (although he finally gave up the flip-phone only in book 3), but I try to keep it ancillary – a tool, but only one too.

    It’s much easier in the historical series. Although I’m sure my young sleuth wishes there were an easier way to get around than the bus!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. In both of my series, my sleuths are in their thirties, so I figure they grew up with tech. It comes in handy, but both live in small towns so they can make a trip a few blocks away to talk someone face to face. It’s the best of both worlds!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. As long as the sleuthing approach feels consistent, I think it’s all right to incorporate a bit of tech. Grafton’s books were very true to the era and that obviously worked out okay!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Love this topic, Leslie, and I agree…it’s a fine line. Back when facebook was just for college kids I had to get my daughter to explain it all to me because I needed it in a story. That was fun! I don’t write historicals typically, but just finished the draft of a ms set in the 1970s. So much fun not to worry about cell phones and computers!

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I like it when there is a good mix of modern technology and old fashioned sleuthing. Too much certainly isn’t good. But I understand the issues of danger in the cell phone era. Of course, you can call someone, but will they get there in time?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Good point, Mark: have your sleuth depend on the phone to get someone to come help, but then the person is on a FaceTime chat with their mother and doesn’t make it in time!


      1. Not even that. But if someone is 15 minutes away but the killer is there right there, they have 15 minutes to save themselves before help can arrive.


  7. First off, love the top photo in this post, Leslie! I have a picture of my family “interacting” like that.

    Personally, I love old-fashioned sleuthing. I enjoy the face-to-face interactions. Plus, I’ve gotten more than one editorial note about why someone couldn’t just Google the fact or use their cell and do a phone interview.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Leslie, I love this! And I love the photos, especially that mirror one.

    You’ve hit on a such a dilemma for today’s mystery authors. It’s a challenge – sometimes a fun one, sometimes not. It’s amazing how often cell phone reception drops out in Pelican, Louisiana, lol! My other series is set in NYC. So it’s an extra hard challenge for that one.

    I’m dealing with a genetics issue now and have to justify why my protag can’t find anything but 4th-6th “cousins” on ancestry sites. Really? No closer relatives ever had their DNA done? I guess not!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ellen, when Harry Potter first came out, I was still writing for kids and I heard someone say that it didn’t matter if you could push a luggage cart through the wall. As long as it was explained that that’s how the magic worked, it was perfectly acceptable. I’ve carried that in the back of my brain this whole time. If you explain why/how it [has to] happen, then that should be enough for your reader. That whole suspension of disbelief thang!

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Hey, I had my DNA done, and other than one first cousin I knew about, the only other relations that have come up are 3-4th cousins, so it’s not that unlikely.

      And bad reception is indeed a thing, even in NYC!


    3. Ellen, my most recent Allie Cobb mystery involved a 20 year missing person and DNA searching. To solve a dilemma like yours, I went with the explanation that while folks may have had their DNA done, they may have chosen to keep the results private instead of public. Of course, my wife is a genetic counselor, so I had easy access to a wealth of information in that topic!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Loved this, Leslie (and, as always, your photos–beautiful!). I am having to deal with this whole dilemma myself, as my MC and her sister are in their late twenties. So far I’ve been so busy throwing rocks at my protag, she hasn’t had much time to do extensive phone research, or at least not in the moment. And a ghost bugs her at night, when she finally has some time to herself. I’m not sure this current strategy is sustainable for entire books, though, lol. She’s a very wary person, so I’m also providing her with conflicting, potentially false info whenever she googles or creeps on social media. We have plenty of dead zones and power outages in real life here in NH, but…my series is set in CT. Sigh.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe the ghost could Google things, but then since she/he’s a ghost, doesn’t really understand tech and screws it all up? Okay, I’ll keep thinking…

      And thanks, Lisa–I do love photography!


  10. Leslie, love the pics! I’d never get away with having my protagonist forget her phone or misplace her keys as often as I do in real life, lol!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Leslie,
    This is a perfect post! Like you, I remember the lack of technology. 8 tracks, beta videos, not having to use area codes in the local area.
    Technology is okay. In my manuscript, I am being asked, “why didn’t she just google it, instead of checking a phone book?” I am really behind the times!
    But how about having a sleuth that is inept with technology. Many our age could relate to it.
    “Siri, What do you mean that method of murder doesn’t exist?”
    “I googled Tracy Drummond and came up with 6,723,490,238 hits. Now what?”
    Or they use GPS, and the cloud cover keeps you going in circles cause it can’t find the destination?
    Or even doesn’t trust technology?
    “Someone call the cops! I need help.”
    “Can you give me directions to the Countryside Diner? I’m new in town.”

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I bill my Natalie McMasters as a detective for the new millennium. She’s a tech savvy twenty-something college student, and cell phones, social media and Gen Z slang are all part of her character. While it’s true that technology can spoil that plot twist you’ve worked on so hard, it can also cause as many problems as it solves. Like when your PI pulls a gun in defense from an ugly crowd, only to find a cell phone vid of the event on the evening news, or when her marriage gets featured on a nationwide sleezy gossip show. I have a great time selecting contemporary songs as ringtones for all of my characters. And when the bad guy clones your phone so he knows everything you’re doing as soon as you do, look out!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. If I could go back in time, I would go back in time and write in an era in which technology wasn’t so ever-present, especially for my twentysomething scientist and her IT tech bestie. Technology creates problems for me because it diminishes problems for my characters. Sure, there are workarounds, but I do miss scenes of desperate characters searching for payphones or whiling away hours at the library (which invariably closes as the sleuth closes in on answers!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kathy, I think someone needs to write a time-travel mystery in which the tech dependent sleuth gets sent back to the 1970’s. Would love to see how they cope with all of the differences, both technical and cultural.

      Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s