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.
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?