Friday, 9 July 2010

Bad! science

I enjoyed listening to Blinded by Science on Radio 4 earlier this week, Tania Hershman stealing the show with her flash story and discussion around the benefits of bringing art and science closer together. But it got me thinking, tangentially, about Technology and the Whodunnit.

I read a fair amount of crime fiction, as you may imagine, since I'm writing a crime novel. One of my favourite authors is Jonathan Kellerman, who manages to write compelling characters, intricate plots, superb locations and surprising crimes. He's been at it since the mid-80s and is still going strong. His early novels are good but for my money he hit his stride in the mid-90s. His recent books, from 2000 onwards, aren't a patch on those written ten years ago, at least I don't think so. Part of the reason for this is that he's pared down his style to such an extent that it sometimes reads as if he's summarising instead of telling the story. The bigger part of the reason, though, is that his detectives "benefit" from modern technology. Not just forensics (Kellerman loves to bash the CSI school of police science) but everyday technology.

Mobile phones are the worst offenders. Every character always knows where every other character is at any given time. They can call for back-up, or just to pick the brains of a colleague. It's good to talk, apparently. Personally I preferred the days when the hero could become perilously isolated, his call for help delayed in transit or thwarted by a vandalised phonebox.

Then there's the research angle. Kellerman's hero is brilliant at hunting down clues, extrapolating, following his nose, trying out angles. Or, you know, putting words into Google and, erm, instantly eliminating multiple avenues of investigation. He used to risk his neck doing this stuff, now the biggest threat is RSI.

There's your detective novel done for, right there. RIP gumshoe hero.

Now I'm no Luddite. But sometimes I surprise in myself an idle wish for a satellite serial killer who will do for modern technology what the Millennium Bug was meant to do. Just, you know, so my heroes (and those of others) could have something more exciting to do all day than go online and run up a massive Orange network bill.

I wonder if this thought is behind the recent fascination with historial crime? A return to the good old days when heroes could be baffled and blind-alleyed, and had to work their socks (or clocked-stockings) off to get their man? I expect so.

The silver lining, as I see it? Logically, since modes of investigation are becoming limited and less random, that which differentiates one author from another and one book from the rest, should be characterisation.

You can lead a man to Google, but you can't make him think. The way in which he does that is in the hands of the author, regardless of who owns the network.


Neon Blue said...

What Kellerman would you recommend to someone who isn't familiar with him?

Jenzarina said...

Absolutely. We were having this very same discussion the other day, thinking of all the plots of books and films we loved that wouldn't work today thanks to mobile phones and the internet.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Neon Blue. I'd recommend Gone, which is one of his best, I think. There's also Rage, another good one. And I finally got around to reading the first ever Alex Delaware novel, When the Bough Breaks, and it was great. You could do worse than start there. Let me know what you think!

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Jen! That sounds like a fun discussion - did you arrive at a definitive list?!