THE BLOG

How Technology Has Changed Crime Fiction Forever

08/18/2014 08:20 am 08:20:35 | Updated Oct 18, 2014

As a novelist who often writes about spies and assorted ne'er do wells, you might say that I sometimes get paid to find ways to make people disappear. Not murder victims. I let my less reputable characters handle that dirty job, and the less said about it the better.

I'm referring to the arts of concealment, of evasion, of hiding in plain sight - tactics which I often have to employ to protect my heroes from the various forces that always seem to be pursuing them.

The problem is that lately there's just too much technology coming on line for their own good, and as a result authors like me are running out of ways to protect our most cherished creations.

Back during the height of the Cold War pretty much all you had to worry about was blown agents and dangerous checkpoints. Oh, and don't forget to sweep your hotel room for bugs, of course, while always heeding the bywords, Trust No One, even though your hero was of course going to end up trusting someone, preferably a member of the opposite sex, or else you'd soon run out of plot points involving deceit and betrayal, not to mention being plagued by a wholly unmarketable deficit of sex. Hey, it was the sixties.

But technology, at least, was still relatively creaky and cumbersome. Listening posts were, by current standards, ancient places with whining tubes and transistors, crackly reception and overburdened translators. By the time someone finished decoding your hero's latest transmission from Prague you could have him on a train halfway to Budapest, or even seated on a nonstop flight home, enjoying his second martini.

Now look at what we authors have to deal with. Cell phones come with GPS, turning every one of them into a potential tracking beacon. Even if you buy one of those cheap virgin disposables, it's pretty much no good after a day or two, thanks partly to the NSA and its caching and screening of millions of calls. And don't even think about logging onto the Internet. Well, okay, maybe for a second or two on somebody else's laptop, or on some public library's machine.

Did I just say public library? Scratch that. Those places have cameras just about everywhere, especially by the shelves holding the more disreputable journals and books that my characters like to read. In fact, you can forget about hiding your Joe in all sorts of places these days, because, as the main character in my latest novel recently discovered to his peril, CCTV is just about everywhere now, especially all those locations you pass through when you're on the run - airports and train stations and even seedy bus terminals, gas stations, rest stops, convenience stores, fast food joints, ATMs (which you'd be a fool to use anyway) and toll booths (ditto, especially if you're paying with EasyPass, which is like pasting a homing beacon to your windshield).

As if all of this weren't bad enough, we're now seeing the widespread advent of drone technology, some of it armed with cameras that can record and analyze thousands of images at a time. And it's not just the government using drones. It's everybody and his brother, even in places as crowded as Manhattan. Most of them have cameras, and most of their operators are itching to post every last image on YouTube or Facebook, probably with an embedded message asking, "Would you like to tag our author's hero so that he may be immediately hunted down and killed?"

Maybe this explains why I'm now working on a book set in New York in 1942. Sure, there was a war on. Saboteurs were on the loose, and crooked cops were on the take. There were even German subs lurking just offshore. But, hey, those periscopes could barely see beyond the next wave, and on land the DA was lucky if he could manage to bug a few phones at a time for a couple of mugs from the Mob. All of which means that this little trip back into the past has been liberating for me and my protagonist. I've turned him loose. I've given him a girlfriend, a few good sources. I generally let him go where he pleases.

And when the time comes, I'll hide him. Easy as pie.