On the TV in my landlady’s lounge, I saw a handsome cop in a car. He radioed his partner back at HQ to let his wife know he’d be late for dinner.
‘That’s rude,’ I mumbled, ‘… text her yourself.’
The shot widened and, from the shape of the car, I saw it was the 1970s. My landlady snorted.
“OK then,” said I, placing the rent money on a table. She pointed the remote and the volume went up as I edged out the door.
Narrative depends on the suspension of disbelief. Authors want readers immersed in their story, caring about the characters as if they were real. Plot details that jar or provoke wisecracks are simply no good.
Even in fantasy, limits apply. The imaginary world conjured up by an author must cohere internally. Tolkien cannot suddenly have hobbits donning jet-packs to cross mountains. That technology does not plausibly exist in Middle Earth.
But what if technology does exist and is conspicuously not used by a character caught in a fix?
A cop in 2010 not phoning his wife himself interrupts the flow of a story. Indeed, returning to Tolkien, one may ask why the hobbits undertook such an arduous trek through hostile terrain to Mordor when friendly flying eagles existed all along.
For mystery and thriller writers, constant advances in technology create potential plot pitfalls for stories set in the present day. Many of the logistical crises faced by characters just a few decades ago make no sense in a world of mobile phones. Authors who now wish to have a character incommunicado must explain that their phone went dead, lost coverage or was smashed. Fortunately, most writers cover this base.
It is easy, however, to forget how simple it is to pierce a false backstory these days. Many thrillers depend on a character successfully misrepresenting himself. A dashing fellow tells an heiress he is an unmarried writer. A seemingly well-heeled tycoon mentions his stint at Cambridge. An undercover cop infiltrates a syndicate by presenting himself as a hippie with ‘lots of mates’ in the nightclub scene. Whatever backstory a character provides, only the most gullible protagonist would not google a new associate, someone they need to trust. This includes checking whether their social media profile matches what they say about themselves and, if the stakes are high, scraping other data from the web.
One does not have to be particularly adept at googling to know that the absence of a social media footprint also blares as loud as a vuvuzela. What this means is that a plausible cad, fraudster or secret agent these days needs to have generated fake Facebook accounts, twitter feeds and to somehow simulate the digital trail most people leave behind as they move through life.
Let’s not forget about all the apps out there. Google Maps, for example, renders superfluous scene in many books and movies I find quite atmospheric. This is where a sleuth pulls up at to a vacant lot to discover it is not an apartment building or row of fancy offices like the business card said. Street View would have saved anyone with 2MB of data the downtown trip.
A related scene is where the brave hero enters a villain’s lair, dodging guards ambling in the grounds. He tiptoes into the library, jimmies open a desk, rifles through papers and stashes the incriminating folios in his pocket. Like Magnum PI used to do. A surprising number of novels still contain this antiquated event. With most information nowadays stored on computers, rifling is a virtual rather than a physical event. What’s more, a hacker competent enough to crack a password on site, could probably just as well do it remotely. So, the hacker does not have to tiptoe to get information. A geek tapping at a keyboard from a beanbag at a coffee-shop across town will do the job. But this does not introduce as much menace to a storyline as Tom Selleck breaking and entering.
I recently read an account of an unpleasant bodyguard forcing a by-stander to delete from their phone photographs just taken. A few decades ago, the equivalent episode would have seen the surly goon stripping the Kodak film from the camera exposing the negatives to the light. Except today destruction of data is a bit trickier. Free software allows anyone to ‘undelete’ lost images. An increasing number of digital natives know this. If the goon in your book merely deletes data or crunches a camera underfoot, younger readers will lose all respect for his intellect. They’ll wonder, “why didn’t he take the memory card?” If this tiny, flat piece of circuitry survives, the photographs still exist.
In my day-job I sometimes present evidence of misconduct gleaned from an employee’s own SIM card. The other day, a witness spent an hour trying to explain his after-hour trips to a particular address. The address was that of the CEO of a company tendering for work. The employee was a senior manager who sat on the committee deciding whether the CEO’s company would land a big contract. Naughty. How was he caught? While studiously avoiding incriminating phone-calls, the guy’s automatically saved Uber receipts gave the game away.
I wonder why crime bosses, real or fictional, do not also subject their underlings’ phones to random forensic checks. Why not have their own risk management department do probity checks for ‘conflicts of interest’? A Don need not bother with a subpoena or warrant. A gun waved in a face would ensure compliance most effectively.
I’ll end with the most rapidly developing field of science, biometrics. It presents plenty of potential plot problems. Not only for authors but actual handlers of secret agents too. Consider the need for a spy, real or imagined, to travel under an assumed identity to another country. Unlike five years ago, his passage is not secured any longer by a piece of paper. As Jeff Stein says in Wired magazine:
‘Busy spy crossroads such as Dubai, Jordan, India and many E.U. points of entry are employing iris scanners to link eyeballs irrevocably to a particular name.’
If James Bond had travelled within the EU before, even as a youngster, this means his eyes would give him away should he later pass himself off as someone else. His facial biometrics will give him away in Australia. False, cross-border identities may still be a plot device but not a very plausible one when an agent has ‘gone rogue’ or has travelled under a different name before. Stein again:
‘If you go to one of those countries under an alias, you can’t go again under another name,” explains a career spook, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains an agency consultant. “So it’s a one-time thing — one and done. The biometric data on your passport, and maybe your iris, too, has been linked forever to whatever name was on your passport the first time. You can’t show up again under a different name with the same data.”’
Biometrics also means the useful trope of the backstreet passport forger is a thing of the past. A successful forger these days would need to have high level state connections in several countries. Even sneaking into building with a false ID badge rings false. As gruesome as it sounds, in place of the forger, author’s now need to invent a surgeon adept at borrowing fingers or eyes for a character to gain access to buildings.
For younger readers who have grown up googling, undeleting, swapping SIM cards and pressing their fingers to scanners many of the crises facing our characters in mysteries or thrillers may seem lame. For authors, there is thus another task – keeping reasonably abreast of advances in digital technology. Or writing books, damn it all, set in an era before the advent of computers spoiled our favourite scenes and devices: vacant lots, false identities, rifling through desks and being uncontactable on a lonely road.
This article first appeared on MysteryThrillerWeek 2017